Four Thoughts On Memphis’ Season-Opening Debacle

Posted by mlemaire on November 19th, 2014

Another day, another nationally televised disaster for one of the presumed best teams in the AAC. Less than 24 hours after Gonzaga blitzed SMU in Spokane, Wichita State mugged Memphis in a game where the Tigers only looked good once Shockers’ head coach Gregg Marshall emptied his bench in the 71-56 win. Although neither SMU nor Memphis should be particularly proud of the way they played, at least SMU can say it ran into a buzzsaw in a hostile environment at The Kennel. Memphis, on the other hand, lost to a team that didn’t even play particularly well and they did it in relatively embarrassing fashion. The Shockers are a good defensive team, but the Tigers only cracked 40 percent from the field once Wichita State had entered its scrubs. The Tigers also turned the ball over 24 times, many in embarrassing fashion, and they only managed four assists for the game. I wish I didn’t have to think about Memphis’ performance again, but since I sat through the snoozefest, I will toss out some observations anyway.

Josh Pastner Should Be Ready For Criticism After Yesterday's Disaster. (Photo/Memphis Commerical-Appeal)

Josh Pastner Should Be Ready For Criticism After Yesterday’s Disaster. (Photo/Memphis Commerical-Appeal)

  1. Wherefore Art Thou Kedren Johnson? It would be one thing if Johnson had just missed a bunch of shots and turned the ball over because he was being aggressive, but the transfer junior, who was supposed to be the anchor of Memphis’ young backcourt, played just 12 minutes, missed his only field goal attempt, and turned the ball over five times without recording an assist. That’s not a tough-luck performance; that’s just a really, really bad performance. I am no fitness expert, but Johnson looked wider than I remember him and appeared very slow off the dribble. Josh Pastner couldn’t justify keeping him on the floor because he couldn’t stay in front of anyone defensively. Opposing point guard Fred Van Vleet is one of the best in the country at his position and he is an absolutely pest thanks to his quick hands, but Johnson is an experienced player with a proven track record of success in the SEC. The fact that he looked so bad doesn’t bode well for the Tigers, even if it is still really early.
  2. The rest of Memphis’ guards weren’t any better. I already mentioned that Memphis turned the ball over 24 times and assisted on just four baskets — an assist-to-turnover ratio that would make even the most selfish of pickup basketball players blush — but in this case it is fair to point the finger directly at Memphis’ guards. Johnson was awful and he deserves most of the blame because at least he has been here before. But Pookie Powell also turned the ball over four times with just one assist and no points; Markel Crawford had three points, no assists, and two turnovers in 17 minutes; and even Avery Woodson played well offensively but turned the ball over three times to go with just one assist. These weren’t just regular turnovers either; they were ugly. Powell had an obvious double-dribble at the end of the first half and Crawford dribbled the ball off his leg on the team’s opening possession of the second half. Again, Wichita State is an excellent defensive team and deserves some credit for pressuring the Tigers’ ball-handlers, but Memphis wouldn’t have looked any better against a true mid-major opponent. There is no doubt that the underclassmen will get better as they earn more experience, but that needs to happen in a hurry for Pastner’s sake.
  3. For Memphis to be successful, its offense needs to go through the post. It doesn’t take a professionally trained basketball scout to understand that Memphis has an excellent frontcourt. Sophomores Nick King (16 points, seven rebounds) and Austin Nichols (10 points, six blocks) were the Tigers’ best players on the floor Tuesday, and Shaq Goodwin is a returning all-conference performer. What made yesterday’s performance by the backcourt particularly frustrating is that even with how poorly they were playing, there was still no concerted effort to feed the post where Memphis had a slight advantage. Everyone is partially to blame here. Pastner had every opportunity to force the ball inside and never did; the guards can’t keep forcing bad shots; and Goodwin and Nichols need to be more assertive. But the ball must go inside for Memphis to be successful. Goodwin spent most of the first half in foul trouble so his lack of shots is somewhat understandable, but the team barely looked at its best player in the second half, which is why he finished just 2-of-2. It’s not just that feeding the post will create open looks for Memphis’ shooters either. Nichols, Goodwin and King are the Tigers’ three best players and 6’7″ Trahson Burrell is going to be too athletic and physical for most other wings. They need the ball in their hands a lot, especially when the Tigers’ backcourt is inexperienced and doesn’t shoot it particularly well. Hopefully Pastner will recognize that and make an effort to fix it by the time Memphis plays again.
  4. If there was a bright spot, it was that Memphis’ defense has the potential to be quite good. We say potential to be good because they aren’t quite there yet. The fact that the team couldn’t even manage one steal is worrisome and the Tigers gave Wichita State a few too many easy looks in the half-court sets and in transition. But like every year, the Memphis rotation is full of long and rangy athletes who can disrupt shots at the rim and harass shooters when the effort is there. The Shockers only shot 40 percent from the field and 25 percent from behind the three-point arc for the game. Some of those misses were open looks that just didn’t go down, but give the Tigers credit, they challenged shots at the rim and made Wichita State work for their baskets. Once again, it is the backcourt that will need to make the largest leap on the defensive end. Johnson has great size for a guard but his foot speed was so appalling that Pastner had to take him out of the game, and Powell is going to be undersized against the majority of guards he plays against. That said, Crawford has all the potential in the world to be an above-average defender, and guys like King, Burrell, and junior Chris Hawkins have the length and athletic ability to guard multiple positions. Nearly every team plays better defensively as the season goes on, which is good news for the Tigers because they may need that defense to help them win some games when the offense sputters again this season.
mlemaire (324 Posts)

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