By: Anthony Sain ( @SainAsylum )
In his first season as University of Memphis head basketball coach, Tubby Smith has already shown that he has the capabilities to help lead Memphis back to respectability as a competitive program. After a surprising 70-54 win over the #25 South Carolina Gamecocks Friday night, the Tigers improved to a record of 10-4 which also includes an impressive victory over Oklahoma on the road. Tubby has accumulated two signature wins under his belt to little fanfare as the Tigers are unfortunately rebuilding and regaining the trust of their fan base after the Josh Pastner era died a slow death. In spite of the decline in attendance and interest in the program over the last few years, Smith has steered the Tigers in the right direction, not only showing that there is still hope for the future but positioning his team to be a possible NCAA tournament team now.
I entered the FedEx Forum Friday night and noticed a decent crowd considering the climate of the fan base. An announced number of 10812 were in attendance which was about 1000 more than the Tigers home game average. Although good by comparison to season expectations , even this number of attendees was small compared to the those that you would expect on a Friday night against a top 25 team. During the Tigers recent string of success during the Calipari era, a matchup against a top 25 team would have been in front of a packed house. Even games against lesser teams had more than 11,000 fans in the seats but this is understandable considering the decline in support over the years. Although it's understandable, it is probably equally unfortunate that this years group of young men are missing the opportunity to be praised and supported for their rapid progress.
Players like Markel Crawford and Jeremiah Martin are two prime examples of the difference that has been made under Smith both players have made significant strides. Martin, who struggled at times to even look like he belonged on a high major D-1 roster, now looks like one of the bright up and coming point guards in the American Athletic Conference. Martin played shooting guard in high school and Smith has helped him transition smoothly to a steady primary ball handler.
Crawford has improved his play tremendously compared to last season emerging as the teams second leading scorer at 14.5 points per game. The former local Melrose High standout struggled drastically in his sophomore campaign especially on the offensive end but has now risen as a leader on the court. I've watched a lot of Memphis Tiger Basketball over the years since childhood and I have never seen a player make such a drastic jump as far as confidence is concerned more than Crawford.
Signature wins and player progression are two of obvious signs of Coach Smith getting things turned around for Tigers this year but there are other noticeable changes that you see as well. Winning with short lineups, energy, effort, focus and communication on defense and offensive sets that flow to create good looks have all been a welcomed change of pace under the Tubby Smith regime. Smith promised that we would see intense defense and high paced offense and we have. The Tigers producing a winning product for their fans but now the challenge is winning them back into their seats and in front of their televisions.