As I left press row after the Tigers win over UCF Sunday, a game official asked me, "How is it possible that we are 15-5?" I paused, smiled at him, and said, "No easy answer." When it comes to the inexplicable, we can always turn to numbers. Here are a few that reflect the Tigers' season to date.
— The Tigers' assist/turnover ratio (or merely "ratio" in modern parlance). The figure ranks second in the American Athletic Conference, slightly behind only the league's pace-setter, Cincinnati (1.5). Share the ball, move the ball, and protect the ball. Those are the three basic rules to Tubby Smith Basketball-Offense. Memphis has collectively handed out 342 assists while committing only 239 turnovers. Its opponents have 250 assists and 289 turnovers.
— The average minutes played, per man, for Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Markel Crawford, and Jeremiah Martin (previously referred to in this space as the team's "four horses"). I had the sense the workload had caught up to K.J. Lawson until he scored 28 points and pulled down 16 boards in the win at Houston last week. Thirty minutes a game can be taxing on a point guard's skills, but there was Martin Sunday, committing only two turnovers in 38 minutes against the Knights. These Tigers are a six-man rotation, and Craig Randall is averaging but 17.9 minutes per game.
— The number of Memphis players to score 1,000 points in their first two seasons in a Tiger uniform. With 917 to date, Dedric Lawson will soon become the 10th (as long as he stays healthy . . . deep breaths). If Lawson maintains his 19.8 points-per-game average for the rest of the regular season, he'll pass — deep breath again — Keith Lee (1,113) for fourth among two-year Tigers, with Larry Finch (1,148) in sight. Penny Hardaway's standard (1,319) will be hard to surpass, but the younger of the two Lawson brothers is proving himself to be historically good in these parts.
— The increase in scoring average for Markel Crawford between his sophomore (2015-16) and junior seasons. Crawford's 15.3 ppg ranks sixth in the AAC. This is a player seen — until this winter — as a solid defensive stopper, an "energy guy." A quick answer to that question about this team's surprising record would be "five" (Crawford's uniform number).
— The number of games Memphis has won despite losing the rebounding battle. The Tigers have lost three such games. Which means this undersized, undermanned team has pulled down more rebounds than its opponents in 60 percent of its games. This is a credit, largely, to the Lawson boys who rank second (Dedric, 10.2) and third (K.J., 8.3) in the AAC in rebounding. But it's further proof that the Tigers' ability to protect the ball — protect possessions, offensive opportunities — counter-balances the extra shots an opponent might get from a rebounding advantage.
4.5 and 2.1
— Jeremiah Martin's averages for assists and steals, respectively. The Tigers' sophomore point guard is the only player to rank among the top four in the AAC in both categories (he leads the league in steals), meaning he is a legitimate candidate for all-conference honors in a few weeks. This from a player who averaged fewer than 14 minutes a game as a freshman.
— The number of Tubby Smiths on the planet. Channeling the late, great John Wooden, Smith summarized his team's progress after the UCF win: "Winning is a by-product of the things we teach." The word "coaching" implies direction. The word "teaching" implies instruction. Twenty games into the Tubby Smith era in Memphis, it's fair to say the Tigers are learning a way to play basketball, one that has proven successful 75 percent of the time the U of M has taken the floor. Much more to achieve, with big challenges ahead (road trips to Cincinnati and SMU to name two). Smith added an important detail during Sunday's press conference, one that hints at the secret to his teaching: "It helps when we're winning. They listen better."