The 2017-18 Tigers passed their season's midpoint in Saturday's win over Tulsa. Sixteen regular-season games in the books with 15 to play. Is that proverbial glass half-empty (it's much emptier if you're counting fans at FedExForum on game nights) or half-full (if five or six Tigers played their best on the same night . . .)? A few quick observations — and lingering questions — from year two of the Tubby Smith era in Memphis.
• What is this team's strength?
The Tigers rank ninth in the American Athletic Conference in scoring (68.7 points per game), seventh in scoring defense (70.1), ninth in field-goal percentage (43 percent), and 11th in field-goal percentage defense (43 percent). Memphis is 11th in rebounding and sixth in assists among the 12 AAC teams.
Coach Tubby Smith likes his team's adaptability, its resilience. The Tigers have, indeed, shown character in coming from behind at halftime in six of their 10 wins to date. After a dreadful showing in their league opener at Cincinnati, the Tigers looked better at UCF, then like a different team (thank you, Jeremiah Martin) in beating Tulsa last weekend. This may become a team remembered less for its numbers than for its comportment and backbone. Let's hope so.
• The near-empty arena has become a vicious circle of gloom for the Tiger program.
I've developed a theory about modern Tiger fandom, one I'll elaborate about later this month. But however Tiger fans are classified — or classify themselves — they are a contributing factor in this once-proud program's downward spiral. Smith and his staff may have their shortcomings as recruiters — they've yet to land what would be called a prize by those contending for NCAA tournament berths — but it's hard to convince a blue-chipper to commit to playing in an arena where he sees more than 10,000 empty seats, however well the Tigers might play that night. Do fans return when the Tigers start winning? Will the Tigers start winning when fans return? Will Tyler Harris bring fans to the FedExForum upper deck? Or do fans need to be in the upper deck for Tyler Harris to become a Tiger? These are the kind of riddles Tiger basketball has become. It's a disjointed, identity-shy enterprise right now.
• Jeremiah Martin is a good college point guard, but can he be this team's Alpha?
The pride of Mitchell High School has continued to improve over the course of his third college season. Martin has made more three-pointers in 16 games this season (27) than he made in 32 games as a sophomore (24). But to ask Martin to be The Guy may be unfair. Remember how heavy Joe Jackson's mood felt for four years? And Jackson's teams were winning regularly, reaching the NCAA tournament. Point guard — particularly one required to score — is the hardest position in college basketball, and few have the internal strength to handle such responsibility while also serving as the face of the program (among players). Martin looked tired against Cincinnati and UCF. Then he looked like an AAC Player of the Year candidate (28 points and eight assists) in the win over Tulsa. You get the feeling the 2017-18 Tigers will go as far as Martin goes. I just wonder if Martin likes that fact.
• Smith has said he's done more teaching this season than in any other of his career. And the man's been doing this 27 years. The Tigers have seven first-year players in his regular rotation (players averaging at least 10 minutes per game). The players are teaching Smith, too. What can he expect on game night, and can he expect it consistently? The Tigers' rookie of the year, hands down, is Kyvon Davenport.
The junior transfer has averaged 12.6 points (second on the team to Martin) and 5.8 rebounds (tops on the squad). Only two other AAC players have averaged as many points and rebounds: Tulane's Cameron Reynolds and Tulsa's Junior Etou. Davenport has scored at least 10 points in 14 of the Tigers' 16 games. It's hard to imagine what the team's 10-6 record would be without this prize from Gainesville, Georgia. It will be fun to see how Davenport holds up in league play.
• In 26 full seasons as a head coach, Smith has had only two losing seasons. His 2013-14 Texas Tech squad went 14-18 and then 13-19 the next year. Then, of course, in 2015-16, Smith led the Red Raiders to the NCAA tournament with a record of 19-13 and was named national coach of the year by The Sporting News
. The 66-year-old coach has seen adversity. But Memphis ain't Lubbock.
In looking at the remainder of the Tigers' schedule, there aren't six automatic wins, the number necessary to avoid a losing campaign
, which would be the first for Memphis since 1999-2000. As of Monday, the Tigers' RPI ranking is 148 (out of 351 Division I teams). The only AAC teams you'll find ranked lower are South Florida (320) and East Carolina (324). The good news for Memphis is that the Bulls and Pirates will be on the opposing bench twice each before the end of the regular season. Beyond those meetings, every opponent will be a test. If the Tigers are to capture any national attention before tournament play, it would be with an upset at FedExForum of 14th-ranked Cincinnati (January 27th) or 5th-ranked Wichita State (February 6th).