It's come to be called "the sophomore jump." A dramatic improvement in play between a college basketball player's freshman and sophomore seasons. Based on the first two games of the 2016-17 season, "the sophomore jump" may be central to the Memphis Tigers' success.
Point guard Jeremiah Martin
and small forward K.J. Lawson
(classified as a redshirt freshman, but like Martin, in his second season at the Division I level) may as well be considered new additions to coach Tubby Smith's roster, their play significantly better than at any time a year ago. Martin dished out eight assists against the Panthers without committing a turnover, blocked three shots, made three steals, and hit three of his five field-goal attempts in 37 minutes of action. The older Lawson brother had 11 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks in 31 minutes, not quite over-shadowing Dedric Lawson
, who notched his second double-double (23 points and 10 boards) in as many games.
After spotting the Panthers a 7-0 lead, the Tigers roared back, burying seven three-pointers in the game's first 15 minutes (two each from Markel Crawford
, Dedric Lawson, and Craig Randall
). The U of M enjoyed a 14-point lead (38-24) at halftime, allowed Milwaukee to close within seven (48-41) midway through the second half, then finished with a 20-13 push to the buzzer. (The game was played in less than an hour and 40 minutes.)
Smith noted Martin's growth, and not only as measured by his stat line. "He's earned his teammates' respect," said the coach, "because of how hard he works. He's asked, 'What do I need to do? I'm all in.' He's a student of the game." As for the 37 minutes in Game Two, Smith said Martin is likely the best conditioned athlete on the team.
Crawford also played 37 minutes and Dedric Lawson 38. In tightening his bench this early in the season, Smith acknowledged newcomers like center Chad Rykhoek (16 minutes tonight, no points) and Christian Kessee (5, 0) are still adjusting to the pace of this level. When asked if he's concerned about heavy minutes for his starters, Smith smiled and said, "They love playing basketball. I'm not worried."
The Tigers will have what Smith calls "a film day" and "a free throw" day before taking the floor at FedExForum Saturday (against Savannah State). The Tigers missed 10 of 12 free throws Wednesday night, and when Smith — starting his 26th year as a head coach — said he's never seen such poor foul shooting, it was impossible to tell if he was joking. (Milwaukee made every free throw, but only took three.)
Memphis shot 46 percent from the field and held the Panthers to 40 percent. Crawford joined the Lawson brothers in double-figure scoring with 15 points. Cody Wichmann led Milwaukee with 18 points on six three-pointers.
The Tigers' 2-0 start is the program's first since the 2012-13 season. "They really get along," said Smith. "They're coming together as a family, and I like to see that. Winning helps."