Matt Norlander didn’t want to go out quietly. The CBSSports.com-bound blogging machine begged to help me out the other night in New York so I opted to bring him back out of a brief retirement to give his take on the young Memphis Tigers.
By Matt Norlander
NEW YORK — There are three games outside Conference USA that we’ll be able to judge, calculate and examine Memphis.
Tuesday night we learned, in Test No. 1 (an 81-68 loss to Kansas), there are many holes and many roles to be filled. That’s part of the fun (perhaps not for the Memphis coaching staff) of looking at the Tigers right now. There are a lot of questions — and that’s still OK with this squad at this point in the season. The primary reason is because of the conference it plays in.
So, about those questions. Let’s ask a few. How good is this group, overall? How strong is it when propelled by a highly touted freshman class? How will Josh Pastner’s first shot at coaching under a lot of pressure end by the time March comes?
How many teams are truly as intriguing the Tigers right now?
Georgetown (Dec. 23) and at Tennessee (Jan. 5) will be the other two temperature gauges outside of C-USA this season. This trinity of tests could and should tell us a good bit about the ceiling Memphis has, and whether it stands a chance at making the second weekend, should it make the NCAA tournament.
But Tuesday night? That ceiling may as well been on a level plane with the rim, which the Tigers had trouble reaching for the better part of 40 minutes.
The players flatly said the effort wasn’t there.
“They played harder than us,” freshman Joe Jackson said. “They had too many easy points. … I really didn’t know what we got ourselves into. I don’t know they’d be that good.”
Jackson sat quietly in the corner of the Memphis locker room, almost letting the dangling uniforms hanging above, waiting to be taken by team managers, obfuscate his view of everyone else in the room. Jackson had one point, took just three shots and committed four turnovers against the Jayhawks. Despite his quiet tone and shy body language, the freshman took responsibility for the loss.
“It all starts with me,” Jackson said. “I was turning the ball over, making some crazy decisions. They did a good job denying me of the ball a couple of times — I wasn’t really expecting that.”
Fellow freshman Will Barton was more openly frustrated.
“We got out-toughed, man,” Barton said. “That is a new feeling. Any time you lose, it’s gotta be a new feeling. We just outplayed, man. Every way in the game.”
Barton had a team-high 16 points, but hardly had the look and feel of a kid pegged to be one-and-done. Chris Crawford supplied 15 points off the bench and kept Memphis within striking distance, but the Jayhawks were never truly threatened in the second half. Although Memphis was weak around the rim and got outrebounded 44-31, Barton said he warned his teammates about Kansas’ interior ability while playing without Josh Selby, whose countdown is now at 10 days before he rejoins the Jayhawks.
“I didn’t underestimate anybody,” Barton said. “I was telling my team this is how it was going to be. It was exactly what I thought it was, what I said it was going to be. So, no, I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Wesley Witherspoon’s performance was rightfully panned — the Tigers forward had two rebounds — but in the team’s next test, it will be on more than Witherspoon. Maybe the starting five needs tweaking. Maybe more success and consistency comes from dealing with Jackson first.
It’s certain that Tuesday night wasn’t all about what Kansas did right; Memphis showed it needs to shift things around and grow if it’s to come out with a win against the Hoyas or the Volunteers in January.