A Lawson shall lead them. But which one?
The Tubby Smith era officially opened Monday night at FedExForum, and sophomore Dedric Lawson
— the American Athletic Conference's preseason co-Player of the Year — contributed 19 points and 15 rebounds, figures to be expected from the team's centerpiece this season. But Dedric's older brother, K.J., stole some opening-night thunder by scoring a team-high 25 points in just 15 minutes of playing time. Classified as a redshirt freshman after missing 24 games with a foot injury last season, K.J. Lawson
hit eight of his ten shots, pulled down eight rebounds, and even handed out four assists (no turnovers) in a performance his new coach claims is merely a teaser.
"K.J. is not close to what he's capable of being," said Smith after securing the 558th win of his Hall of Fame-bound career. "When you make shots, it helps, and no turnovers. He was excellent."
The Tigers matched the up-tempo pace of Texas-Rio Grande Valley, though the opening minutes looked like the opening minutes of a season, Memphis committing six turnovers in the first six minutes. But with the Lawsons combining for 25 points and junior guard Markel Crawford
hitting four of five shots from the field, the Tigers took a 51-40 lead to halftime.
Memphis extended the lead to 24 (73-49) eight minutes into the second half, spurred in part by the play of point guard Jeremiah Martin
. The sophomore from Mitchell High School followed a three-pointer with a dunk in transition (on a feed from K.J. Lawson), and looked like the developing floor leader Smith expects him to be for this team.
"He's leading the right way," emphasized Smith. "And he's as competitive as there is." Martin finished the contest with 13 points, six assists (four turnovers), and four steals. The point total topped his high last year as a freshman (11).
As for his statistical outburst, K.J. Lawson emphasized the mental toughness needed to fit Smith's system, to take what an opponent allows (in terms of shot selection), and to never give in. "One thing I always have is confidence," he said. "Coach Smith creates chaos in practice, so when we come to a game, it's like we've already been here before."
Nick Dixon led the Vaqueros with 28 points off the bench. UTRGV shot 38 percent for the game, compared with the Tigers' 48 percent. Memphis struggled from the foul line, missing 14 of 35 shots.
Nine players saw at least 14 minutes of action for the Tigers, as Smith is aiming to manage minutes during a stretch that has the Tigers playing four games in nine days (all at FEF). Memphis returns to the floor Wednesday night when Milwaukee comes to town.