The 2017-18 Memphis Tiger basketball season tips off this Friday in Annapolis, Maryland, where Tubby Smith's squad will face Alabama in the Veterans Classic. There's only so much we can glean from 40 minutes of exhibition basketball against a Division II foe, but here are a few early observations, taken largely from last Thursday's win over LeMoyne-Owen at FedEx Forum.
• Among the several rookies on Smith's roster, three appear bound for heavy minutes and should impact how well (or poorly) the upcoming season goes. Kyvon Davenport
is a big man (by college standards) with soft hands, a prototype that thrives at this level. Furthermore, he moves well and appears to have an outside touch with his shot (he drained one of two three-point attempts in the exhibition and hit six of nine from the field overall). Like Davenport, guard Kareem Brewton
was a first-team JUCO All-America in 2016-17. Brewton drained a trey to open the scoring against the Magicians and went on to score 11 points and hand out nine assists (with only two turnovers) in 25 minutes on the floor. Then there's freshman Jamal Johnson
. It only seems like a decade since the Tigers had a consistent, pure shooter from long distance. Johnson hit four of seven three-point attempts and scored 14 points in 19 minutes last Thursday. If the Tigers merely realize an approximation of that off-the-bench impact from Johnson, the team will be a lengthy stride ahead of last year's group.
• This is Jeremiah Martin's team
, whether or not the junior point guard wants it. Martin took on playmaking duties as a sophomore, for a new coach, on a team with basically a five-man "rotation." And he thrived, averaging 10.3 points and 4.4 assists with an assist-to-turnover ration better than two-to-one. Can he further develop, now with other ball-handlers (including Malik Rhodes) behind him? Martin would be a legitimate weapon (and all-conference candidate) if he could find the mark from three-point range. (He shot 28 percent from long distance last season.) With Johnson, Davenport, and Brewton in the mix, Martin's lone shortcoming may not be as evident this winter. And the Tigers will have an even better point guard.
• The Tigers are bigger, but how much?
Among the ten Tigers who played at least 10 minutes in the exhibition, six are at least 6'6" . . . but none taller than 6'8". Will this team rebound (long a hallmark of Smith-coached clubs)? Senior Jimario Rivers is all effort in the paint, but averaged just 3.5 boards in 22 minutes as a junior. (Some of this is due to Dedric Lawson cleaning the glass so well. Won't be an issue this season.) Mike Parks (6'8") started the exhibition, played 23 minutes . . . and grabbed two rebounds. Freshman Victor Enoh (6'7") came off the bench and pulled down six rebounds in 11 minutes. Davenport led the way with seven boards. Watch this area closely. The Tigers won't stay in games with the likes of Cincinnati or Wichita State if they're not ending an opponent's possession after one shot.
• The Tiger fan base remains in "wait-and-see" mode.
There were not 5,000 people in the stands last Thursday night. Not close. I've seen exhibition games at FedExForum with more than 10,000 fans cheering a meaningless contest. After three years of postseason-free basketball, the Tiger program will either turn toward a new, brighter future this season . . . or further darken what's become a gloomy mini-era. I'm not sure the home schedule will help. Memphis opens against Little Rock on November 14th then faces New Orleans a week later. A game against Northern Kentucky will be played the same day (November 25th) the Tiger football team — a Top 20 program now — hosts East Carolina in its regular-season finale. Then there are four home games over an 11-day stretch of early December with teams only moms and the hoop-addicted can love: Mercer, Samford, Bryant, and Albany. A tilt with Louisville (in Madison Square Garden) on December 16th will really be this squad's opening game. Visits from the Bearcats (January 27th) and Shockers (February 6th) will say much about the program's following in what can now safely be called Grizzly Country.
I recently sat down for a visit with Tubby Smith. We discussed his first season in Memphis, a turbulent offseason, and the campaign ahead (to win Tiger hearts and minds). Check it out in this week's print edition of the