Senior Writer

Work-in-progress Memphis proves C-USA superiority


MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Memphis coach has already dismissed a McDonald's All-American for disciplinary reasons, and the Memphis players made four consecutive free throws in the final 31 seconds of their nationally televised game early Tuesday to secure a win. So it's now official, isn't it? These are not the Tigers you used to know.

"We understand the history of Memphis, but that's not something we think about," Charles Carmouche said after getting 13 points and five steals in a 72-68 victory over Miami that almost certainly ended while you were sleeping. "We're just focusing on us and trying to be the best we can be."

Memphis' Charles Carmouche plays some strong defense, nabbing five steals to go along with his 13 points. (AP)  
Memphis' Charles Carmouche plays some strong defense, nabbing five steals to go along with his 13 points. (AP)  
For the record, Memphis isn't quite there yet.

The 19th-ranked Tigers missed 18 of 22 3-point attempts, got out-rebounded by a 51-31 margin and squandered a nine-point second-half lead to a team picked eighth in the preseason ACC poll. Thing of beauty, this was not. But the announced crowd of 17,873 here at FedExForum still seemed thrilled as it funneled onto Beale Street after the final buzzer, and the program's second-year coach couldn't have been happier, either.

Are there things that have Josh Pastner concerned?

Of course.

The inability to grab a rebound headlines a long list. But when you overcome a four-point deficit with less than four minutes remaining and do it thanks to multiple newcomers making multiple big plays, you smile, and so that's what Pastner did while discussing the night's/morning's events. He smiled and talked about how his heralded recruiting class made clutch free throws late and remained poised in the final seconds, neither of which was a characteristic synonymous with Memphis basketball in recent years, mostly because of how the Tigers famously choked away the 2008 national championship.

"We held on," Pastner said. "We came back and got the 'W'"

How Memphis got that 'W' is what was most interesting.

Those who follow college basketball even casually understand Pastner signed one of the nation's best recruiting classes last year, and people have been talking about it for months. But when they talked about it, they were really just talking about the top of the class -- specifically Joe Jackson, Will Barton and Jelan Kendrick, all three of whom were ranked in the top 15 nationally by various recruiting services.

Jackson, Barton and Kendrick were supposed to be the keys.

That was always the idea.

But Jackson (17 points and four assists) is the only of the three who made an impact against Miami because Kendrick (dismissed) is no longer involved, and Barton (bad ankle) is still adjusting after missing nearly three weeks of practice.

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The other newcomers are the ones who won this game. Chris Crawford, a borderline top 100 prospect, sank a 3-pointer to put the Tigers ahead 66-65 with 1:53 remaining. Carmouche, a transfer from New Orleans, grabbed a rebound and subsequently sank two free throws to give Memphis a 68-66 lead with 55 seconds remaining. And Antonio Barton, Will's less-heralded brother, made a free throw to put Memphis ahead 69-66 with 31 seconds left, then hit another to make it 72-68 with 1.5 seconds remaining.

Looking for reasons why Memphis won't miss Kendrick much?

The reasons are in that paragraph.

"We left all the high school accolades in high school," said Antonio Barton, who finished with 10 points and four rebounds in 19 minutes. "I think I've opened some eyes and showed people I can play."

That, he's done. So has Crawford, Carmouche and freshman Tarik Black, and Jackson already seems destined to be the next great Memphis guard from the city of Memphis, somebody folks will one day group with Larry Finch, Andre Turner, Elliot Perry, Penny Hardaway and Antonio Burks.

Meantime, Will Barton should eventually catch up, and veterans Wesley Witherspoon, Will Coleman and Angel Garcia can't possibly go 2-for-13 from the field too often. Which is why it's more than reasonable to expect these Tigers to run through Conference USA and compile a gaudy record just like John Calipari's teams did from 2006 to 2009, because if Memphis can beat an ACC outfit while Witherspoon, Coleman and Garcia combine for just two field goals, and while Will Barton is non-existent, and while the team shoots 18 percent from 3-point range and is out-rebounded by 20, then who in C-USA figures to really have a chance?

Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.

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