The final buzzer sounded at just past 9 p.m. ET as No. 15 Georgetown put the finishing touches on a 70-59 victory over Memphis at the Verizon center, wrapping up what was a crisp, two-hour basketball game.
It wasn’t until 10:45 pm, however, that Memphis head coach Josh Pastner finally emerged from his team’s locker room in the bowels of the Verizon Center. For the second time in the span of 10 days, the Tigers had a team meeting in an effort to cure what ails them, this one lasting just 15 minutes less than the game itself.
“We just had a team meeting and needed to air a few things out,” Memphis head coach Josh Pastner said after the game. “It was the right thing before we got to Christmas break. It was a good open discussion. I love those guys, no one in there is happy to be 6-5. Have we played a tough schedule? Darn right. But we’re too good to be sitting at 6-5.”
The Tigers are as talented as any team in the country. On paper, they are a top ten team. But there is a reason this group is sitting just a game over .500 heading into the Christmas break, the second straight season they have have stumbled out of the starting blocks.
And only one possession is needed to give you an idea of why.
With just under six minutes left in the second half of No. 15 Georgetown’s 70-59 win over Memphis, Joe Jackson missed an open three that could have cut what was once a 20 point lead to eight. He missed it, but Will Barton grabbed the offensive rebound. Barton’s follow-up attempt was blocked by Henry Sims, and the ball ended up on the floor. Three different Memphis players had a chance to pick up the loose ball, but it was Jason Clark that eventually dove on the floor and called a timeout, giving possession back to the Hoyas.
In the grand scheme of things, that single possession really didn’t mean all that much. The Tigers were still able to cut the Georgetown lead to as close as seven and they had numerous other possessions during a late-second half rally that could be pinpointed as critical failures in their comeback.
But that possession epitomizes what is currently plaguing the Tigers. The failure to execute and the inability to hit open shots is obvious. More importantly, however, the Tiger’s have a chronically inconsistent effort level, and that is why Memphis finds themselves in the position that they are in.
“You’re losing and there was bad energy,” Pastner said. “That’s been an achilles heel for us, we haven’t been able to sustain a 40 minute game of energy.”
“We can’t have energy for 18 minutes, its gotta be for 40. Basketball is a game of energy and if you don’t have the energy its hard to win at a high level.”
Its gotten to the point that the question has to be asked: will this team respond to Josh Pastner? Is he the kind of coach that is capable of lighting a fire under this group? Is he the guy that will convince them that, unless they are playing for 40 minutes the way they played in the final ten, they will continue to lose games?
Because at this point there can be no more team meetings.
“A lot was aired out, which I think was very good,” Pastner said. “But in the end I said ‘Guys, we can’t have this. We can’t have anymore meetings.’ We’ve gotta do our jobs and get the job done.”
Its time to put up or shut up. Either the kids that step foot on the basketball court in a Memphis jersey every night are going to decide that they are sick of losing and sick of being embarrassed by falling to teams they can -- and should -- beat, or they are going to continue to disappoint and underperform. Its up to the players to decide whether or not they make this loss and the resulting team meeting the turning point of their season.
“We just got to go out there and play for each other. That’s when we’re going to be a great team,” Will Barton said after the game. “Teams aren’t better than us talent wise, but talent can only take you so far. We gotta really play for each other and want each other to succeed. That’s when we are going to take off. You can’t have those bad vibes out there.”
And that’s where the frustration lies for Pastner.
In the end, there is only so much that he is going to be able to do. He’s can’t go out there and make the plays. He can’t be the one that boxes out on the defensive end of the floor or pulls the ball out and runs their half court offense when a transition opportunity isn’t there. When it is all said and done, all that Pastner is able to do is to prepare his team as well as possible and hope that they take what he says in practice, during film sessions and in huddles on the bench during games and turn it into victories.
And right now, that isn’t happening.
It doesn’t help matters that the Tigers have virtually zero veteran leadership on their roster. Charles Carmouche hasn’t played since the team got back from Maui. Wesley Witherspoon has become a shell of himself, going scoreless in three of the past five games and managing to see the floor for a whopping eight minutes in the last two. DJ Stephens has been sidelined with a bum knee and Stan Simpson has proven nothing except the fact that he is not ready to compete at this level of basketball. What that means is that Ferrakhon Hall, a junior that played just his third game with the Tigers after transferring in from Seton Hall midway through last season, is the only upperclassman that sees any kind of significant playing time right now.
With that much youth playing that many minutes, ups-and-downs are going to be inevitable. The problem is that the downs last far too long, that no one involved with this team seems to be able or willing to rip into this team when they need a fire lit under them. Its no secret that Pastner is one of the nicest coaches around. He doesn’t drink or curse and he’s young enough that he could easily be mistaken for a player if he showed up for a game in a jersey instead of a suit.
That’s just who he is, his defenders will tell you.
Honestly, I have no problem with that. To tell you the truth, its actually refreshing to see a coach at a big-time program that has values beyond winning at all costs. But you better believe the media in Memphis is sharpening their knives. He’ll only get a pass for so long before people start calling for his job, and in Memphis, when the media starts calling for your job, you’re in trouble. They ran off the football coach. The athletic director got it too.
And if things don’t start heading in the opposite direction soon for Memphis -- like, for example, if the Tigers lose to Tennessee next month after losing out of top ten recruit Jarnell Stokes on Thursday night -- the columnists are going to start coming after him.
If who he is is a coach that doesn’t win games at Memphis, he won’t be long for that job.
So what needs to change?
For starters, Pastner needs to find a way to start being the bad guy, and the easiest way to motivate a basketball player is by sitting him down. If a player isn’t performing the way he is expected to, than he can grab a seat on the pine. He’s already started that process with Witherspoon, who has become a complete non-factor and a sulking presence on the bench.
Next up is Tarik Black. Frankly, it is unacceptable for the starting center of any team to go an entire game without grabbing a rebound, and that is precisely what Black did on Thursday night against Georgetown. He fouled out after just 13 minutes of play, including a whopping three minutes and three fouls in the second half. Hall, in his absence, wasn’t exactly the second-coming of Dennis Rodman, collecting just two rebounds in his 22 minutes, but he brought an energy and a toughness to the interior that we haven’t seen out of Black all year long.
“I thought Ferrakhon gave great effort. He was battling and competing,” Pastner said.
Black wasn’t, and he hasn’t all season. Hall was, so next Thursday when Robert Morris comes to town, put him in the starting lineup.
“That’s what my niche is with this team,” Hall said. “That’s what I can do to help the team. I’m not a guy that’s going to come out and score 30 points. I just go out and I put my heart into it and I know that’s how I can affect the game.”
Jackson should be third on Pastner’s list. This was easily the talented point guard’s toughest outing of the season, as he finished 0-7 from the floor with four turnovers while sitting the final three minutes of the game, but it certainly wasn’t the first time he’s struggled this year. The issue with Jackson is that Pastner doesn’t seem to quite understand how to use him. He’s a scoring guard, but he’s very generously listed a 6'1" (more like 5'10") and needs to have the ball in his hands.
The bigger problem? Jackson doesn’t take failure well. When he misses a couple of shots in a row, it throws him off for the rest of the game, and not just offensively. It affects his defensive effort and his decision-making process with the ball in his hands. Jackson starts to think instead of react, and that, frankly, is the worst thing that can happen to a player as talented as him.
Memphis was at their best on Thursday when both Black and Jackson were strapped to the bench. The Tigers made their run in the second half when Pastner had both Bartons, Hall, Chris Crawford and Adonis Thomas on the court together. That team scrapped. They hustled. They turned defense into offense. They played with pride, and that’s something that we haven’t seen enough of this season from the Tigers.
“We’re playing good teams every night,” Barton said. “You just cant have nights that you take off. Thats a big past of it. We have some metal lapses. We’re just trying to get a feel for each other and get to know each other.”
“Every game, I’m not going to be able to just dominate the game. Its strategy. Teams aren’t going to let me kill them all the time. When I have my supporting cast helping me and they’re doing they thing, that’s just going to make the game easier for me. They focus on them and I can go right back to dominating the game. I need that from them on a more regular basis.”
The answer? Play the group that provides that help “on a more regular basis”. Play them together. As much as possible. Put that five on the floor to start. And maybe, when the rest of the Tigers start to see their minutes get cut, they’ll buy in.
Pastner’s right when he says that changes need to be made, that the Tigers are past the point of having team meetings.
But he needs to be the guy that creates the spark that leads to that change. He needs to get his team’s attention.
If they aren’t going to play his way, they aren’t going to play.
You’d be surprised how good of a motivator the bench can be.