Tubby Smith is wearing sneakers again.
I'm not sure if it's possible to see relief in another human being, but I think I saw it in a 66-year-old basketball coach last Friday at the Finch Center on the University of Memphis campus. Smith met a group of reporters for a brief, season-opening press conference, during which he touched on a rather turbulent offseason, and not just for the Memphis Tigers. An FBI investigation ensnared several assistant coaches in a scandal involving bribery and wire fraud, and led to the ouster of Louisville coach Rick Pitino, one of the most recognizable figures in all of college basketball.
"You think you've seen it all," said Smith, who is starting his 27th consecutive season as a Division I head coach. "I know we'll get through it. Coaches are gonna coach. Teachers are gonna teach. You're concerned about friends in the business. Hopefully it will get resolved. You've got to do the right thing in this business. We're trying to make sure our players understand there's a right way and a wrong way to do things."
Smith expressed sympathy for Pitino. He served as an assistant under Pitino for two years (1989-91) at Kentucky. Smith also said that he sleeps well at night, that he's not perfect but "the softest pillow you can sleep on is a clear conscience." So despite losing three starters with eligibility remaining — most notably the Lawson brothers, Dedric and K.J. — Smith views the 2017-18 season as one of opportunity for the Memphis program.
"We have so many new faces," said Smith. "There's a lot to teach. But we had a good start, with so many of them in summer school. Everyone's healthy. Any time there's a new season, there's new energy, and new enthusiasm."
• Veteran radio host Greg Gaston and I spent the first 20 minutes of an open practice simply trying to identify players (no names on the back of practice jerseys). "That's Jamal Johnson, right?" "Nope. Malik Rhodes." "Two guys with beards?" "Hey . . . there's Jeremiah [Martin]
!" Smith noted that Martin and Jimario Rivers
are serving as team captains, the only two returning players with any legitimate experience in a Tiger uniform.
• Raynere Thornton
is a 6'7" swingman with the shoulders of a fullback. Greg and I agreed that Memphis hasn't had a truly big guard on the wing since Antonio Anderson and Tyreke Evans played their last college games in 2009. (Apologies, Chris Crawford, but you didn't play big.) Thornton had three triple-doubles last season, his second at Gordon State College in Georgia.
• Rivers and Dedric Lawson were the only players Memphis could describe as "big men" last year, and even they were often undersized when battling traffic in the paint. During a stretching exercise, I counted at least four players who could push Rivers around and get away with it: Kyvon Davenport
(a 6'8" juice All-America last season), Mike Parks
(6'9", 270 pounds), Karim Azab
(6'11"), and Victor Enoh
(6'8"). The Tigers simply had to get bigger, and they clearly have.
• Who will lead these Tigers in scoring? Even after Friday's cursory scouting trip, I have no clue. Davenport averaged 16.5 points last winter . . . against junior college defenders. Martin averaged 10.3 points as a sophomore, but if your point guard is your scoring leader, you'll lose your share of basketball games. Freshman Jamal Johnson
brings a shooter's reputation and averaged 24.8 points as a high school senior in Alabama. This could be the kind of team where six or seven players average between 8.0 and 13.0 points per game. This would be healthy.
• If you connect single-digit uniform numbers with playing time, the following six should appear in the Tigers' rotation when the season opens November 10th (against Alabama, in Maryland): Davenport (0), Johnson (1), Rivers (2), Martin (3), Thornton (4), and guard Kareem Brewton