Basketball is "King" in the city of Memphis. And heavy lies the crown.
When the undefeated University of Memphis Tigers (2-0) headed to the Bahamas to compete in the Battle 4 Atlantis during the Thanksgiving holiday, not only were the hopes high, so were the expectations.
Memphis was slated to face the Virginia Commonwealth Rams, an up-and-coming mid-major powerhouse, in the first round. The Tigers came entered the game ranked second for the least turnovers (offensive), and VCU was ranked first in turnovers forced (defensive). It was clear that something had to give.
VCU deploys a smothering full-court press on defense and Memphis played right into the Rams' style, committing 22 turnovers. Although the Tigers played better in the second half, they were handed a 78-65 defeat.
Memphis headed to the losers' bracket and were greeted by the Minnesota Golden Gophers and highly acclaimed coach Tubby Smith. The Tigers, again, looked unimpressive and lost to Minnesota 84-75.
Head coach Josh Pastner decided a change was needed. In Memphis' last match up of the tournament, the seventh place game, Joe Jackson was moved from point guard to shooting guard and Chris Crawford was moved to the point.
The game generally runs through the point guard and this change alleviated the stress of being the main facilitator, allowing Jackson to be more aggressive from the wing. The change proved successful, as the Tigers were able to come away with a 52-47 victory over Northern Iowa in their last game in the Bahamas.
Yet, when Memphis returned to the mainland they were met with negativity from elements of the media. The Tigers began the season ranked in the Top 25. After back-to-back losses, Memphis dropped out of the rankings. Newspapers and radio waves were filled with concerns, ranging from Josh Pastner's coaching style to the players' will to win.
The frustration from the True Blue Nation was easy to understand. Memphis has a team loaded with talent and they win lots of games. But they can't seem to get over the hump and come away with a signature win.
The Tigers' next contest was on Nov. 29 against the Skyhawks of UT-Martin. Memphis took the court without the team's best big man, Tarik Black, who was going through personal frustration issues and wasn't at the game. The starting lineup was changed accordingly, with true freshman Shaq Goodwin getting his first start. Goodwin collected his first career double-double, recording 17 points and 12 rebounds. Jackson also had another great showing from the two-guard position, notching 13 points and 8 assists.
It was clear the Tigers knew they had to win the crowd back and came out hard early and never looked back.
Pastner preaches to his players to "ignore the noise," meaning no matter what everyone is saying about the team, good or bad, don't pay it any attention. In this instance, it seemed as if the Tigers heard the negativity and used it as motivation to cruise to a 93 -65 victory and improve to 4-2.
Next up for Memphis was the Ohio Bobcats (Dec. 5), a scrappy team with a heavy junior- and senior-laden lineup. The Bobcats are 6-1 on the year and many speculate they will make a strong push to win their conference (MAC) and earn a bid into the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers kept the momentum rolling in another dominant performance, downing the Bobcats 84-58. Memphis looked very impressive again, with heavy contributions from Goodwin (20 points, 9 rebounds) and Jackson (10 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds). The more intriguing storyline was transfer Geron Johnson having a break-out game, playing 29 minutes and leading the Tigers in scoring with 21 points.
Pastner took a chance on Johnson, who has had a troubled past, and it looks like it could work out for Memphis. Going forward, the guard combinations between Jackson, Crawford, Barton and Johnson could cause some serious match up problems for future opponents.
For now, the Tigers are riding high on a three-game win streak and playing very much like a team with a chip on its shoulder. They'll look to keep the momentum going against Austin Peay this Saturday (Dec. 8) at the FedExForum.