No face plant this year. For one night at least, consider order restored in the University of Memphis basketball world. Two years after the Buccaneers hammered the first nail into Josh Pastner's coffin as Tiger coach, Memphis handled its crosstown Division 2 rival with ease, 69-42. The team's headliner – sophomore forward Dedric Lawson — scored 11 points and pulled down 13 rebounds and senior transfer Christian Kessee added 10 points in just 18 minutes on the floor.
Tougher nights are ahead for the Tigers and new coach Tubby Smith, but here are three quick observations as I open the basketball compartments of my brain:
• The Tigers are undersized and if 6'11" Chad Rykhoek — he of the extensive injury history — gets into early foul trouble, Memphis will suffer. The Tigers barely outrebounded the Bucs, 40-36. That said, this team actually appears to have depth and versatility in the backcourt.
With Jeremiah Martin (starting point guard), Markel Crawford (defensive stopper on the wing), K.J. Lawson (slashing swingman), Kessee (outside marksman), Craig Randall (the team's only other long-distance threat), and Keon Clergeot (backup at the point), the rotation will force cold shooters or turnover-prone ball-handlers to the bench. Martin handed out five assists tonight without a turnover in 25 minutes. K.J. and Crawford combined for 13 rebounds. Be sure and count guard rebounds this season. They'll decide games.
• Tubby Smith is chill
. It would have been more noteworthy, perhaps, if Smith had ranted and raved, considering this was merely an exhibition game. But there was something indeed comforting about seeing the Tigers' coach sitting. In his chair on the sideline. Smith sat more tonight, it could be argued, than his predecessor did all last season. He chuckled at a reporter's comment after the game about how calm he appeared. And he said what you'd expect: "It was an exhibition." He may not be John Wooden with a rolled-up program in hand, but Smith has a wizardly aura about him, due in part to the excitable nature Pastner displayed so often the last two seasons. Hear me on this: There's only so much a basketball player can hear from a coach while he's in the middle of the game flow. There will be a time for shouting, for emoting. And we'll see it from Tubby Smith. There will also be times — like tonight – to chill the hell out and watch a basketball team grow.
• I'm not sure Smith gets a honeymoon. At least not as it's often defined for a new coach. Upon arriving at FedExForum tonight, I wondered if we'd see a big crowd — yes, even for an exhibition — to welcome a man who appears bound for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Alas, there were no more than 7,000 people in the arena (attendance was not announced). There's a wait-and-see feel to the program
, I'd say. Winning will be required before crowds of 15,000 and larger are again seen for Tiger games. And I'm not sure beating the likes of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, Milwaukee, Savannah State, or McNeese State — the Tigers' first four opponents — will sell tickets. It may take a win over Providence, Virginia, or Iowa at the Emerald Coast Classic (Thanksgiving weekend) before the Tiger fan base fully re-engages.