RIP Positive Paul

tombstonePositive Paul died today during a 74-66 Memphis Tigers home loss to Tulane. Despite the fact that Tulane is 11-3 and now 2-0 in the American Conference, this was a fatal blow to Paul – seeing as Tulane is still actually Tulane and not another school with a history of actually fielding competitive basketball teams this millennium. As Frank Murtaugh notes in his excellent game story, this was Memphis’ first home loss to the Green Wave since December 1992, shortly before George H.W. Bush left office.

Positive Paul leaves behind 3 siblings:  Negative Nellie, Realistic Ralph and Philosophic Phil.

 

Retrospective: Rocky V is Actually Good

Encore went ahead and had a Rocky marathon on New Year’s Day and I went ahead and watched it.  Not every second of all 6 films without a significant break (though I’ve done that before…..twice), but bits and pieces of all throughout the day as I flipped back to football and suffered from a strain of flu similar in symptom complex to the Spanish Flu of 1918. Next year I’ll probably go ahead and get that shot.

Surprisingly, the film that grabbed my attention on this occasion more than the others was Rocky V. Sure, I watched snippets of the Oscar winning original (you must always remind people that the original won Best Picture) and caught the training montages in IV that somehow never get old (the beard!) – but V actually had me genuinely hooked. I watched the entire second half of the film.  Maybe it’s not all that surprising, I’ve always felt Rocky V was a little misunderstood. Let me explain why.

Rocky V had the misfortune of being released 5 years after Rocky IV, which to any United States born male with a birth date between roughly 1967 and 1980 was quite simply the most heart pumping, inspiring, thrilling, hate-the-Russians-ing movie of all time. To quote Mickey (Rocky’s trainer) from a Rocky V flashback, it was “motivizational.” I can vividly recall commiserating with my elementary school classmates about how horrifying it was when Apollo got his ass kicked by the Russian (to actual bloody death), about how terrifying Drago was (“If he dies, he dies”) and about how the final 40 minutes of the film had given my young life new meaning and hope. Not your average movie.

So Rocky V was always going to be compared to Rocky IV – and it was always going to lose. But it’s an apples to oranges comparison, and here’s why: Rocky IV was, at its core, an action movie.  Sure there was some drama involved – the rehashed ‘Adrian doesn’t want Rocky to fight but she comes around in the end’ story line – but at its core Rocky IV was a 1980’s action movie. An amazing one.  An all timer. But an action movie. But the original Rocky wasn’t an action movie – did I mention it won best picture in 1976?  Rocky V wasn’t an action movie either – it was more of a drama. Closer to the family of the original Rocky, Rocky II, and the concluding piece – Rocky Balboa. Here’s the other thing: Rocky V was actually good.

I know what you’re probably thinking: I’ve seen Rocky V. It sucks. It isn’t good at all.

Sure, that’s what you told yourself in 1990, when you were young and stupid and your heart rate had barely returned to normal following Rocky IV 5 years earlier. You still had the cassette soundtrack to IV in your car – I know I did – and probably listened to it on the way to the theater. You were disappointed. I get it.

Do yourself a favor, try watching it again now. Start to finish. You won’t regret it.

You’ll find the following 5 hidden gems in Rocky V, which I provide you now for further convincing:

1. Rocky V actually has a good story. Now that you’re an adult, especially if you have children, this movie will appeal to you. The drama around Rocky’s relationship with his son is well played – though on a sad side note the character of the son is actually played by Sage Stallone (Sylvester’s actual son) who passed away in 2012. The story of how the Balboa’s lose their wealth is very realistic and happens to athletes all the time. Rocky’s involvement with Tommy Gunn’s boxing career certainly didn’t satisfy the action seekers who came back from IV, but again, it was realistic and entertaining to watch.

2. Talia Shire might have delivered her best moment of the entire series in Rocky V, right here:

I mean, it doesn’t get any more passionate and real than that.  It’s just perfect.  In context, it’s even better.  So watch the movie and you’ll see what I mean.

3. The much maligned street fight with Tommy Gunn, was actually pretty cool. Now that we’ve had 25 years for the disappointment to die down surrounding the fact that Rocky V wasn’t a rematch with Drago or some other such silliness – let’s all take a deep breath and acknowledge that *Tommy Gunn was a P.O.S. and needed to have his ass kicked. In that street. By Rocky. Add to that the fact that Rocky wasn’t even going to stoop to Gunn’s level and fight were it not for the fact that Gunn punched Uncle Paulie in the face. After Paulie called Gunn a “piece of garbage,” and a, “goddamn joke,” and referred to his entourage, including the esteemed George Washington Duke, as “rat bums.” After Paulie fell, Rocky said simply: “You knocked him down, why don’t you try knockin’ me down? My ring’s outside.” Boom. Fight on. *Not referring to Tommy Morrison who also tragically passed away, in 2013.

4. Mickey Flashbacks. Burgess Meredith, who played “Mickey” in the first 3 films before being killed off in 3 – reappeared in this film in several moving flashbacks. I think the best way to describe these sequences are: FU*KING AMAZING. You’ll have to watch to get the full effect, but let me just say: “I didn’t hear no bell. Get up you sonofabitch, cause Mickey loves you.”  #eyesmoist

5. Elton John, Series Montage During Closing Credits – Measure of a Man. There are no words. There are. No words. The most unheralded part of maybe all 6 films – and if you’re watching it on regular TV it gets cut out. But here it is, in it’s pure, undeniable beauty. You’re welcome:

Positive Paul, Negative Nellie & Realistic Ralph (1/1/15)

Tiger fans are well aware that Josh Pastner prefers Positive Pauls and does not like Negative Nellies.  We at bballjones.com respect both. At the end of the day however, we strive to be more like Realistic Ralph.

Here’s a little something about the Tigers current season (8-4 after beating Houston on Wednesday) from all 3 viewpoints:

Positive Paul

  • 5 in a row, baby!  And a good chance to get to 6 on Saturday vs. Tulane.  The light has finally come on for the Tigers.
  • Avery Woodson looks like the best pure shooter the Tigers have had in a long, long time – maybe since Jeremy Hunt.
  • You had to know this team was gonna start slow with so many new pieces, but now they’re learning how to play together and they’re about to go on a huge run.
  • This team appears to actually have guys that know their role.  Woodson is the 3pt specialist.  Cunningham and Powell (combined 10 assists, 6 turnovers) are improving as PG distributors. Nichols is a shot blocking machine.  Goodwin and Godfrey are energy guys down low.  Burrell is a scoring threat and high motor 3.
  • When the TIgers roll through the American, their RPI will improve enough to merit an NCAA bid, and Pastner will be vindicated as they finally make that deep tournament run fans have been longing for.

 

Negative Nellie

  • Houston sucks.  Kelvin Sampson has to be really kicking himself for taking that job.
  • This is really no different than any other year under Pastner – beat the crappy teams and then choke when the real opportunities come up.  No reason to be optimistic.
  • There’s still no consistent starting line-up. When Memphis fell behind 8-0 to start the game, Pastner started subbing like a mad man, which reeked of desperation.
  • Kuran Iverson does not appear to be having a good time playing limited minutes.  Could there be chemistry issues behind the scenes for this team?
  • What’s the deal with Kedren Johnson?  Guy was supposed to be a real contributor and he can’t even get off the bench.  Very strange.

 

 

Realistic Ralph

  • The Tigers are playing better – but doing so against weak competition.  Houston’s RPI is 229. Not very good. The best team Memphis has played during their current winning streak, based on RPI, is NC Central (84).
  • Pastner’s squad will have opportunities to prove their turnaround is based on more than just weak competition over the next few weeks.  After Tulane (128) comes to FEF on Saturday, the Tigers take to the road to play SMU (55) followed by a re-match at Houston. Memphis then comes home to face rival Cincinnati (54) on a Thursday night.
  • Memphis will have to start beating teams like SMU and Cincinnati (and Temple (29), Gonzaga(6)) to get back in the conversation for an NCAA bid.
  • Austin Nichols appears to be turning into the counter-argument to those who say star players don’t get better under Pastner (a valid criticism to date). Nichols numbers are better across the board compared to his Freshman year – and he’s turned into a genuine shot blocking presence.  Opposing offenses will have to adjust to him.
  • Regardless of how you may feel about Pastner, it’s nice to see (and important to note) that this team does not appear to have quit on him at all.  They appear to be playing hard, playing together, and improving.

 

14 Grizzleaneous Thoughts (12/31/14)

1. Packed house at FedExForum on a cold, nasty Tuesday night for the Spurs.  Very impressive.

2. Even though everyone always said that Memphis would support a winner – I’m not sure I ever actually believed that the Grizzlies could put a legit 17k + in the stands on a frozen Tuesday night in December.  Memphis is, in fact, supporting a winner.

3. The Grizz are absolutely winners – as they controlled this one against the defending champs from start to finish.  Spurs cut it to 5, but it never seemed in doubt.

4. Mike Conley was just outstanding – hard to imagine he’s not an all-star.

5. Seemed as if Spurs head man Greg Popovich decided about halfway through the 2nd quarter that it wasn’t the Spurs night – or maybe he was afraid of arguing with the officials and getting ejected. Either way, it was weird seeing him totally withdrawn from the game in the 2nd half. He never really got out of his chair in the 2nd half.

6. Don’t let anyone tell you there’s not a bad seat in FedExForum. There aren’t alot of bad seats, but as it turns out, in section 112A, the seats against the large wall that divides the section from the terrace level seats – those are bad seats (especially if your neighbor is plus sized). My friend and I had those seats for this game and were quite disappointed.

7. We tried the “find better seats” strategy – which is simple:  (a) We spotted a few completely empty rows in Section C5, then (b) waited until halfway through the second quarter when all late arrivals typically have shown up, (c) walked over to said rows, past the lady checking tickets, like we owned the place, (d) sat down in empty rows, and (e) declared victory.

8. Again, these rows in C5, 2 of them, with 16 seats each, were COMPLETELY empty with about 8 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter. That’s 32 empty seats.

9. After my friend and I sat in the seats for about 5 minutes, approximately 32 people (but maybe as many as 100,000), mostly children, showed up together to claim their seats and we were confronted awkwardly by the usher who sent us back to 112A – against the wall – with a reprimand.

10. This was reminiscent of a time that @FlashGordonNY and myself were flying standby on a red eye flight from Las Vegas to Memphis and about 5 minutes before the conclusion of boarding there were 50 open seats.  We thought we had made it on standby. With about 2 minutes to go – a metaphorical clown car of about 50 (but maybe as many as 100,000) people ran to the gate, claiming our (their) spots and stranding us without a seat.

11. Was good to see Jarnell Stokes get some PT against – though he didn’t try to do too much. Knowing the kind of guy he is, and watching his demeanor, it’s easy to envision him being a contributor one day.

12. The Grizz offense was moving quickly – and Joerger mentioned in the postgame that playing quicker in the halfcourt continues to be a point of emphasis.

13. He (Joerger) insists that the quickened pace will help the Grizz in the long run. He’s probably right. Either way, it’s an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball the Grizzlies are playing these days.

14. The Grizzlies now have 2 days off before a 2 game trip out west @LAL, @Den.  Then they return home to face the Knicks. A much gentler stretch than what they’ve just been through.

 

 

 

 

Interview with JT’s #wigsnatch Girl

JT

 

 

Raise your hand if you didn’t know what “WIGSNATCH” meant until Justin Timberlake’s Twitter brouhaha a few weeks ago.  Me neither. Now of course, #WIGSNATCH is kind of a Grizzlies thing. It’s not as big as ALL HEART, GRIT GRIND, but it was quickly a t-shirt – thanks to the scenester, trendy folks over at SACHE. Last May, Kyle Veazey at the Commercial Appeal did a nice piece chronicling the creative-trendy energy surrounding the Grizzlies.

 

A few weeks ago, Emily Childers (above, far right with the pink Grizzlies headband) got a pair of floor seats to the Grizzlies – and showed up with her “MIND YA GRIZZNESS / #WIGSNATCH” t-shirt on. Also, face paint. Also, head band. She then realized JT himself was sitting 5 seats down from her and….SELFIE!

 

Of the moment, Childers says simply, “It was history.”

 

Not a bad night at the Grindhouse (a nickname so creative and perfectly descriptive that it long ago went nation-wide) for the 26 year old bartender and lifelong Memphian.

 

We caught up with Childers before the Grizz v. Spurs on Tuesday night to try to understand the origins of her Grizz passion:

 

BBJONES:  Alright, tell me about the JT picture – how it came about…

Childers:  Me and (my friend) were joking on the way over about ‘what if we saw Justin Timberlake?’ – and we had on his #wigsnatch t-shirts that day, so we were like ‘it would be perfect.’ So we get courtside tickets that day. Justin Timberlake ended up sitting 5 seats to the right of us. I immediately looked at Justin Timberlake – I grabbed my friend’s arm and I go ‘let’s go – we’re getting a picture.’ And it was awesome.  And he looks like he’s having a better time in our selfie picture than me and my friend actually are. And it ended up being one of the best selfie pictures ever. And he was really nice about it. It was really short and sweet. I said, ‘JT can we please take a picture’ and he said ‘sure’ and that was it. It was history.

 

BBJONES:  Did you think about saying anything else to him, was your mind rehearsing what to say next and how that was going to go?

Childers:  Absolutely not, I just wanted the picture. Because I didn’t want to waste his time because I knew I wasn’t the only one taking a picture with him. And this is his team and he wants the whole experience and I didn’t want to take up any of his time.

 

BBJONES:  How long have you been this into the Grizzlies?

 

Childers:  I’ve always enjoyed the Grizzlies but during College I was too broke to go to games and didn’t have time. Then all last year I worked 5 nights a week as a bartender and so this year i finally have the money and the time to spend money and go to games. And i’m a native Memphian why wouldn’t I like the Grizzlies?

 

BBJONES:  When was your first Grizzlies game?

 

Childers:   I was in high school with my dear friend Adrian- I wasn’t wearing any Grizz gear. I don’t think i knew what was going on when it comes to how the game was played. But i remember having a really good time.

 

BBJONES:  What is it that you like about Basketball?

 

Childers:  Looking at really tall creature-humans…and the hype that the audience brings…and it’s the only sport that I honestly understand. I understand it.

 

BBJONES:  Is there one Grizzly player in particular that is your favorite and why?

 

Childers:  Vince Carter cause he’s a badass.  He’s 37 years old and still plays like he’s 20.  And if you look at his highlights of games – he plays like nobody else does.  He takes risks, he has fun. He plays around with the players and the opposing players and he’s just a damn good guy. I also really like, um, watching his free throws because he’s really, um, he’s actually really tight. and he only has a 3 inch vertical – and i think that’s hysterical because he’s a baller.

 

BBJONES:  Explain what you mean when you say you like watching his free throws because he’s tight.

 

Childers:  Um, he…his stance, first off, he never lifts his feet of the ground in free throws – which is unusual.  And he has a really good free throw record. And just his mannerisms and his gestures free throwing is totally his own and he rocks it.

 

BBJONES:  You dress up for games, what’s that about?

 

Childers:  The Grizzlies are really special to me because I don’t like hype surrounded by like dressing up.  LIke Halloween and New Year’s – I don’t like any of that stuff. I never enjoy dressing up.  However, putting on your Grizz gear and the face paint and cheering on your team and screaming for them and people looking at me and saying she’s (pause) a damn good looking fan (laughter) is a super fun experience. I don’t enjoy dressing up for anything besides Grizzlies games. And I have 3 hats, a pair of gloves, 4 shirts, a vest, and a sweatband. And #1 glitter stickers and blue face paint.

 

BBJONES:  What is it about the games that you love so much?

 

Childers:  They’re just super fun. and it’s super fun to just go with people. It’s always a good time. You don’t even have to drink to have a good time. It’s just the crowd, the energy and just watching our boys do the thing on the court is just one of the funnest activities that there is to do in the city of Memphis. Hands down.

 

BBJONES:  You have standards on seats, don’t you?

 

Childers:  Absolutely. The farthest i’ll ever go, the shittiest seats I’ll ever get is Terrace row A – and they’re still really good seats.

Musing #5: 10 Old Sayings that Need to Go Away

Most people, but especially southerners, appreciate a good colloquialism. Often, even if they don’t make perfect sense, they’re just funny. Sayings like, madder than a wet hen, or so buck-toothed she could eat corn through a picket fence – are just terrific. Simple, funny, graphic, fresh.

 

On the other hand there are some sayings, more general in nature, that need to be retired because they’re ineffectual, inaccurate in a small but important way, or just plain wrong. Here are 10 popular sayings – with accompanied analysis as to why they don’t make sense and why they should be discarded. Finally, we’ve included a temporary harsh, literal, replacement.

 

10 sayings that need to be finished:

 

1. “A watched pot never boils” – This is not true. A watched pot, provided the liquid reaches 212 degrees Fahrenheit, will boil. If the person effectuating the boil keeps his / her attention singularly focused on the pot, it will seem as if it is taking longer because most humans are not comfortable focusing their attention or consciousness in one area for an extended amount of time. The literal falseness of this statement significantly undermines its effectiveness.

 

Replacement saying recommendation: Lose the superstition and join the rest of us in reality.

 

2. “There are Other Fish in the Sea” – This is often said to someone experiencing emotional pain as the result of a failed personal, often sexual, relationship. Not only is it not helpful, the implication utilizes a metaphor that is subtly violent and unworkable in the context of establishing a romantic partnership.  What the speaker is effectively saying is: “Hey look, I realize this recent failed attempt to coerce someone into liking you has left you to confront your fundamental inability to maintain lasting, meaningful connections with other human beings, but don’t worry about it because there are other people out there for you to entice, trap, suffocate, skin, cook and eat.” Makes zero sense. Doesn’t help.

 

Replacement saying recommendation: Maybe you should take a look at why all your relationships fail.

 

3. “There are no stupid questions”  – Yes, there are. Of course there are. One of the most well known stupid questions is asking a woman how pregnant she is. That’s dumb. Reporters ask stupid questions all the time. A reporter famously asked Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda what his opinion of Dave Kingman’s performance was, after Kingman had hit 3 home runs in the game against Lasorda’s Dodgers. Dumb question.

 

Replacement saying recommendation: Try not to ask a stupid question.

 

4. “The pen is mightier than the sword” – I don’t think this is necessarily true. Take for example Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. They probably don’t think pens are mightier than swords. Of course we can’t ask them because they were stabbed to death. Also, this popular saying is in direct contradiction with another very popular saying…(see next)

 

Replacement saying recommendation:  While it may be possible to achieve some lasting impact through the written or spoken word, sharp objects clearly have the power to destroy life.

 

5. “Sticks and Stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” – As already alluded to, this might as well be “The sword is mightier than the pen” — so clearly we have cognitive dissonance here.  At the end of the day I’m willing to argue that both these sayings are shit. I do, however, respect the point the author of this saying is trying to make.  He / she is basically saying to someone, I don’t really GAF what you have to say.

 

Replacement saying recommendation: I don’t really GAF what you have to say.

 

6. “Easy Come, Easy Go” – True only in a very limited context. Take, for example, Herpes. Herpes is much easier to contract than to get rid of. In fact, it is technically impossible for Herpes to “go” because one can be a host even without an active outbreak. With Herpes, it’s more accurate to say, “easy come, never go.”  Other examples of things that are easier to acquire than to get rid of: spouses, termites, mental illness, crack addiction, criminal charges, children, Ebola.

 

Replacement saying recommendation: Be careful.

 

7. “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” – Not even close to accurate, and reflective of a perfectionistic, self righteous individual. I have never (a) changed my own oil, (b) built a truss bridge, or (c) inserted a catheter into a urinary tract. I wouldn’t want to do any of that shit myself. I do, or would definitely, consult experts for those things.

 

Replacement saying recommendation: Hey chief, why not let someone who knows what they’re doing give that a shot?

 

8. “The shit is about to hit the fan”  – Why would shit ever hit a fan?  Do people throw shit at fans?  Is someone shitting directly into a fan?  What exactly is going on here? Am I missing something? Where did this even come from?  While it is true that shit hitting a fan would be incredibly messy, and the simplicity of the statement is elegant, there’s just no basis in reality for the saying. Only because it has become so popular, its randomness is somewhat disturbing.

Replacement saying recommendation: Your situation is about to be terrible.

 

9. “There is no such thing as bad publicity” – This is so untrue it’s crazy. How could this ever have been true? For example, I think most people would agree it was bad publicity recently when Bill Cosby was accused by a series of women of committing multiple date-rapes over several years in his adult life. His shows were cancelled and he lost a lot of money. Not good publicity. Malaysia Airlines appears to have suffered some bad publicity after flight 370 disappeared.  Sure, maybe it’s not their fault, but business is still down.

 

Replacement saying recommendation: There is such a thing as bad publicity.

 

10. “You can’t judge a book by its cover” – Literally untrue, of course, but the metaphor breaks down as well. Literally, you most certainly can judge a book by its cover and thereby save yourself a lot of time.  What is the alternative, to read every book?  That’s insane. There is a great deal of information on the cover of a book:  the author’s name, the title, sometimes a summary on the back, a picture – more than enough to decide whether or not the book is worth exploring further.  For example, I can safely assume that a book entitled, “Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela,” by Nelson Mandela is going to contain some version of the life story of Nelson Mandela from his own perspective. If I have no interest in Nelson Mandela or am specifically looking for a book on transgender fiction, then I’m going to be able to pass some quick judgment. Metaphorically, I typically judge the ripeness of bananas (books) by the coloration of their peel (covers).  So the usefulness of this saying is more limited than its usage would indicate.


Replacement saying recommendation: Don’t judge people too quickly, but go ahead and be reasonable about other shit.

29 Grizzleaneous Thoughts (12/27/14)

Went to Grizz / Rockets tonight with @FlashGordonNY and @barsandkaps. Here are 29 observations / reflections about the experience:

 

  1. Grizz lost their 4th in a row, but – maybe because Zbo was out, or maybe because they’re still a very respectable 21-8 – it didn’t feel like a tragedy.
  2. Except to the grown man behind us in the jersey.  Definitely felt like a tragedy to him.
  3. The next 2 are @ Heat (tomorrow) and back at home vs. Spurs (Tuesday) – so there’s a real possibility the streak could get to 6.
  4. Still wouldn’t feel like a tragedy IMO. That’s the benefit of an 82 game season.
  5. Using “In the face” as a cheer / insult at an NBA game just feels right every time.
  6. Incredible overall atmosphere at FedExForum. The Grizz staff does such a good job with game presentation.
  7. Grizz games just feel so Memphis now, for a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is the Grizz Grannies – who crushed it Friday night.
  8. Hard to imagine that an NBA arena can be any louder than FedExForum after the 2nd of Vince Carter’s late 3’s.
  9. Will “The Final Countdown” by Europe ever get old?
  10. No.
  11. Does “Welcome to the Jungle” make me want to wrestle my friends?
  12. Yes.
  13. Love watching Vince Carter play basketball.  He will be 38 in January – which makes him 5 months older than me.
  14. I played an hour of pickup basketball on Friday, and have been bitching about a jammed thumb ever since.
  15. It really hurts when I put weight on it.
  16. Carter, on the other hand, runs around with the best athletes in the world – most of whom are more than a decade younger than him – and still plays at a very high level.
  17. Can’t go to a Grizz game without remembering how much I love Chris Wallace.
  18. I have a theory that the Grizz are going to win the NBA title just because Chris Wallace exists as a human being.
  19. The halftime show, Duo Design, was impressively creepy.
  20. These dudes (Duo Design) show up with head to toe gold body paint and no clothes – except a pair of tiny gold panties (each).
  21. Their junk is on full display as they proceed to do about 10 minutes of yoga on top of each other.
  22. There’s probably a better way to describe what they do than ‘yoga on top of each other’ but maybe not.
  23. Was fun sitting behind the Rockets bench and watching Rockets Head Coach Kevin McHale in action. I was first introduced to NBA basketball by my Grandfather in the mid 80’s – watching McHale’s Celtics play the Lakers in the finals. Dude is now 57, and let’s just say he doesn’t get around like he used to.
  24. In 1986-87 McHale averaged 26 & 9. His post moves were so deadly, McHale referred to them as his ‘torture chamber.’  In 2014, it looks like McHale is in a torture chamber when he has to walk 10 feet from the coaching huddle back to the regular huddle.
  25. McHale’s Wiki Page lists 3 notes for personal life.  (1) His wife. (2) His kids. (3) His 2 episodes appearing as himself on Cheers in Seasons 9 & 10.
  26. One of McHale’s Cheers episodes was titled, “Cheers Fouls Out,” the other, “Where Have All The Floorboards Gone?”
  27. @barsandkaps loves those episodes.
  28. For a guy who claims to be all about Memphis, was sort of surprised that @FlashGordonNY had never heard of the Bayou.
  29. Zydeco wings at Bayou did not disappoint. They never do.

Memphis & the Big XII – Reality Check Time

Big XII conference expansion is a hot topic among Memphis fans – primarily because (a) Oklahoma State booster Boone Pickens confirmed a popular Memphis rumor when he recently said, ‘Memphis wants in’ (duh), and (b) the Big XII was shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff – which caused some people to suggest that the Big XII should expand by 2 members in order to immediately institute a football championship game. Even Memphis football head coach Justin Fuente, in a recent interview with Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, acknowledged candidly that the program should aspire to join the Big XII.

So we can all agree that Memphis – its fans, its boosters, its administration, heck even its football coach – wants in.  This piece examines Memphis’ conference affiliation – both present and future – and provides a realistic assessment of their chances at inclusion into the Big XII.

Reality check #1:  The Big XII isn’t expanding right now – primarily because the candidates aren’t worth $22m per year. This isn’t to say the Big XII won’t expand down the road, particularly if their petition to de-regulate conference championship games – so that that they can stage one without expanding to 12 teams as the current rule requires – is denied. As of now, however, Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby couldn’t be clearer about his conference’s attitude toward expansion.  According to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, the available schools, Memphis included, do not bring the equity to the table that matches the annual Big 12 per-school payout from the media contracts — $22 million.  Bowlsby confirmed that fact to Dodd, and added some additional considerations:

“That’s right. Even more than that — it’s academic, it’s competitiveness, it’s geography, it’s scope of program. Just getting to 12 so you can have a playoff is among the worst reasons to expand.”

Ouch. Bowlsby recently appeared on talk radio in Orlando (AM 740) with Mike Bianchi, and clarified his league’s position:

“We don’t have any schools on our radar at the present time. … We don’t have any expansion initiative; we don’t have any list of prospects or any plans to expand. But as our ADs and CEOs talk about the challenges of the future and our immediate past experience we had in the playoffs, these [expansion initiatives] are things that are going to get discussed.”

He again explained the financial factors, and why they’re not interested in expanding (yet):

“We divide the money 10 ways. Right now, we’re distributing the largest amount of money to each of our members in any league in college athletics. I don’t know that our members are prepared to take a reduction in that distributable revenue. It (expansion) is certainly about TV sets. It’s certainly about recruiting. It’s certainly about the possibility of competitive implications in all of our sports, but particularly our high-profile sports. At the present time we have no strategy. We haven’t had any discussions around expansion. Our CEOs have said they like 10. I expect that we’ll be at 10 for a while. Could that change down the road? Sure it could… I don’t think we’re going to take a kneejerk reaction and think immediately about expansion just because on this occasion we got left out of the playoff.”

In other words, Memphis and other hopefuls can wait by the phone if they want, but don’t expect a call for at least a little while.

Reality Check #2:  Memphis’ lack of prestigious academic reputation matters – but it can be overcome.  Bowlsby’s comment about academics should concern Memphis fans. The fact is, academic fit and reputation does matter. These are university presidents making these decisions, not football coaches or fans. Conversely, Louisville is a good example of a school that used its extensive success on the field / court to overcome a lower academic profile. Forbes ranks Louisville #548 overall as a college, similar to Memphis at #609. Cincinnati is #391, UCF #405.  Whether or not 200 spots on Forbes’ rankings matters enough to take one school over another remains to be seen, but if I were directing Memphis’ expansion efforts I’d make sure to keep the Louisville story in the front of my mind.  Which leads us to…

Reality Check #3:  Memphis needs to achieve more success on the field in order to position itself. When programs get promoted from outside the “power” conferences, they typically do so after years of extended success in the primary revenue sport – football. In the latest round of conference reshuffling, 6 of the 7 schools promoted out of the old BIG EAST and MWC into the current “Power 5” had enjoyed multiple years of football success.  The anomaly was Syracuse, and to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh:

School From: To: 10 win seasons in previous decade
Louisville BIG EAST ACC 3 (2012, 2006, 2004)
Syracuse BIG EAST ACC None
Pittsburgh BIG EAST ACC 1 (2009) + 2, 9 win seasons
Rutgers BIG EAST B1G 1 (2006) + 3, 9 win seasons
TCU MWC Big XII 5 (2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2002)
West Virginia BIG EAST Big XII 4 (2011, 2007, 2006, 2005)
Utah MWC Pac 12 5 (2010, 2009, 2008, 2004, 2003)

It’s no accident that arguably the 2 most successful programs on that list (West Virginia and TCU) were the programs chosen for inclusion into the Big XII. Football is what matters to guys like Boone Pickens and power brokers in Texas. Whereas basketball powers with suspect football pedigrees (Syracuse & Pittsburgh) might sneak into the ACC, that isn’t going to happen in Big XII country.

In other words, for Memphis to position itself as a strong, obvious candidate for inclusion into the Big XII, it needs to keep winning in football. One great year probably won’t cut it, but 2 or 3 might.

Reality Check #4:  Memphis’ needs to continue to grow its football brand.  This is a corollary to #3, and why it was so crucial to retain Justin Fuente for another year.  Memphis could enter 2015 as a preseason top 25 team – which would translate into better television time slots within the AAC / ESPN / CBS Sports package. The Memphis vs. BYU Miami Beach Bowl drew a very strong 1.3 rating, despite an awkward 2pm-Monday time slot. Obviously BYU’s national brand helped that number, but so did simply being on primary ESPN (as opposed to ESPN branded channels with more limited distribution such as ESPNU and ESPNEWS) and playing a thrilling game. Though Memphis had a number of games on television in 2014, they were often on ESPN’s less distributed platforms (ESPNEWS & ESPNU).  Accordingly, the ratings for their games suffered:

Rating:        Viewers:                  Time / Day:                                 Teams:                                                               Platform:

1.3 1.32m 2:00 PM (Mon) BYU/Memphis ESPN
0 65K 4:00 PM (Sat) UConn/Memphis ESPNEWS
0.1 95K 3:30 PM (Sat) Memphis/Tulane ESPNU
0.1 87K 12:00 PM (Sat) Memphis/SMU ESPNEWS
0.2 249K 8:00 PM (Fri) Tulsa/Memphis ESPNU
0.2 307K 7:30 PM (Fri) Memphis/Temple ESPNU

TV ratings can’t be considered in a vacuum, as they don’t reveal important factors such as what games or alternate programming was being aired head to head.  Accordingly, it is not clear whether or not these ratings met or failed to meet expectations. For a list of all CFB ratings in 2014, see this list (courtesy of Sports Media Watch). Nevertheless, it’s clear that being on ESPN matters. Being ranked matters. It means more people see your name, your team, your logo. But most importantly it means that you might be able to generate higher ratings… which will then help you pitch the Big XII CEO’s and TV Network executives that your program will bring enough additional revenue to offset the additional mouth to feed. AKA – $22 million.

Reality Check #5 & #5A: If the Big XII does expand, Memphis has a lot of connections and the right geography. In politics, it’s all about who you knowThe same is undoubtedly true when university presidents and AD’s get together to discuss expansion candidates – especially if all other factors are relatively equal. In their quest to gain admission to their conference, it can’t hurt that many of the powers that be at The University of Memphis have Big XII ties. Consider that several high ranking people in the Memphis administration previously worked in the Big XII:

Dr. David Rudd, University President Former Dept. Chair at Texas Tech from 2006-2009
Worked at Baylor
Graduated from Texas
Wren Baker, Deputy Director of Athletics Worked in Athletic Department at Oklahoma State from 2001-2005
Stacy Martin, Sr. Associate Athletic Director Assistant AD at Kansas State from 2009-2012
Justin Fuente, Head Football Coach Assistant coach at TCU from 2007-2011

Assuming that Boone Pickens’ statement (that Memphis wants in) was based on conversations at the donor level, one can imagine a multifaceted lobbying campaign targeting every school in the Big XII and trying to win broad based support in advance of any expansion discussions.

Reality Check #5A:  Geography & TV do favor Memphis:  Bowlsby has said that the Big XII, should they expand, would look to bridge the gap to West Virginia:

We have one member in West Virginia that’s on the East Coast. We have to be mindful of their situation. If we took somebody…on the far West Coast it would certainly do a disservice to our member in West Virginia.

This would indicate a candidate pool of possibly Memphis, Cincinnati, UCF, SMU and Houston. Of those 5, only Memphis and Cincinnati offer a true geographic bridge for West Virginia to the rest of the Big XII membership. Of those 5, only Memphis, UCF and Cincinnati offer new television markets for the conference – as Houston and Dallas are television markets already saturated by the Big XII. Memphis, on the other hand, is a top college football television market but one that is currently dominated by the SEC. The potential of generating big ratings in SEC country would seem to be an enticing argument in Memphis’ favor. Memphis vs. a Big XII opponent (Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia) on Fox, Saturday in prime time from the Liberty Bowl would certainly generate a higher rating than, say, Memphis vs. Tulsa on ESPNU on a Friday. Would it be a big enough rating to eat into the SEC Saturday night game of the week on ESPN? Big enough to pique the interest of Bowlsby and his CEOs?

Reality Check #6:  Memphis needs to support and grow the AAC now – especially since Big XII expansion is uncertain and the environment is treacherous. NCAA governance reforms (aka autonomy) and various class action lawsuits attacking the NCAA’s amateurism model virtually ensure that the next few years will bring tumult and change to college athletics. Most observers have predicted a coming arms race in student athlete benefits (lifetime scholarships, family travel, meals, health insurance, etc…) which will rework athletic department budgets. While pursuing Big XII membership is vital, Memphis and other AAC programs have to deal with the reality that their financial model is currently closer to UAB’s (which just went out of business) than to Alabama’s. If it hopes to remain relevant over the next decade, Memphis must grow its athletic program within the AAC and support the AAC’s growth as a brand. If the Big XII’s petition to de-regulate conference championship games is granted, it’s very likely that conference simply won’t expand. At that point, the AAC becomes a solid long term home for all the so-called Big XII candidates.

The AAC signed a 7-year, 126m contract with ESPN in 2013. With his leverage eroded due to the timing of the last round of conference shuffling, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco negotiated a television contract with ESPN that provided for unprecedented exposure (did you ever think you’d see the day that every single Memphis conference football game was on national television?), but much lower TV payouts than the “Power 5” conferences. By comparison, the SEC will likely distribute more to one single school in 2015 (approx 30m) than the AAC will collect in total annual revenue from the ESPN contract. Though the money isn’t good for the AAC, ESPN has given the conference a clear opportunity, through exposure, to demonstrate greater value for future TV negotiations. The current contract reportedly has a look-in provision that will allow for potential extension and renegotiation. At the end of the day, Memphis and other AAC schools have to get eyeballs on their games. With the NFL increasingly becoming a 3 or 4 night a week sport, this won’t be easy.

If there truly is no Big XII expansion for the next 10 years as some predict, then the AAC schools will look to Aresco, a former television executive with deep understanding of the marketplace, to manifest his statement about the conference economic landscape being 5 + 1 (as opposed to 5 haves and 5 have nots).

Bottom line: In sharp contrast to where they found themselves during the last round of shuffling – as a last gasp, desperate addition to a dying BIG EAST – Memphis actually makes some sense for the Big XII should they decide to expand.  That decision, however, is far from certain and some are saying it’s not likely at all. That’s the bad news. The good news is the market for college football will recognize value. Therefore, Memphis can do the most to strengthen its position by simply continuing to invest in football and positioning itself competitively ahead of schools like Cincinnati, SMU, Houston, UCF – whether that be in the AAC or the Big XII. The competition among those schools for the next life boat out – might just be a rising tide that lifts the AAC to a favorable market position.

Positive Paul, Negative Nellie & Realistic Ralph (Western Illinois edition)

Tiger fans are well aware that Josh Pastner prefers Positive Pauls and does not like Negative Nellies.  We at bballjones.com respect both. At the end of the day however, we strive to be more like Realistic Ralph.

Here’s a little something from all 3 viewpoints:

 

Positive Paul:

  • Trashon Burrell can play. The JUCO transfer from Lee College (TX) has now scored in double figures in 8 of the first 11 games of his Division 1 career.  On Tuesday evening, he pulled down 9 or more rebounds for the 4th time this season.  He is active, has good range (37% from 3pt range this season), finishes at the rim and averages almost 2 assists per game as well.
  • This Memphis team plays hard and plays together.  The undisputed strength of Pastner’s Memphis teams over the years is their propensity to play unselfish basketball (at least offensively). This squad is no different in that regard.
  • Memphis’ point guards, Pookie Powell and D’Marnier Cunningham, combined for 17 points, 8 assists and just 4 turnovers. Though Cunningham will struggle to guard bigger players, he’s incredibly quick and attacks the lane.  It will be interesting to see if he can be effective against AAC teams. He struggled against Oklahoma State, but that was his first Division 1 game. A high level donor in the front row last night insisted that Cunningham is going to be better than Joe Jackson. As far as I know, said donor has no background in scouting.
  • This may be the best rebounding team Pastner has had at Memphis. They have a gang rebounding approach and have out rebounded all but 3 opponents so far – coming close in those matchups. Against Western Illinois on Tuesday night, King had 10 rebounds, Burrell and Godfrey finished with 9 each.
  • With a 4th consecutive win, Memphis pushed its overall record to 7-4 heading into conference play. Confidence is rising and if the guard play continues to improve (remember that Pookie Powell is still a Freshman), Positive Paul can allow himself to dream about Memphis competing with SMU, UConn and Cincinnati for a top seed in the AAC Tournament.

Negative Nellie:

  • WTF is up with Shaq Goodwin?  The Junior, presumed team leader and pre-season all conference selection got suspended for a “violation of team rules.”  Memphis didn’t need another distraction heading into conference play – and another game where their best rotation isn’t deployed.
  • Blending Goodwin back into the lineup during high intensity conference games in January won’t go well.  Calvin Godfrey and Nick King combined for 24 and 19 on Tuesday night and neither one is going to want to cede minutes when Goodwin returns. One can easily foresee chemistry problems – something Pastner has never been adept at handling well.
  • Memphis still has too many defensive breakdowns – and allowed a bad Western Illinois to play them even (37-37) in the 2nd half on Tuesday night.
  • FedExForum has been moribund the last several home games. On Tuesday, it was half full at best. Although folks that attend these types of games tend to be the most loyal, vocal and supportive fans – it’s clear there’s a depressed energy around the program right now.
  • Fan reality is enhanced by the fact that it’s unlikely this Memphis team will make the NCAA tournament. Sure, it’s too early to write them off (just ask Positive Paul), but They’re 7-4 with an RPI (CBSSports) of 144 heading into AAC play. Of the remaining opportunities on the schedule, only Gonzaga (8) is in the top 30 of the RPI. SMU and Temple are both top 50, so there will be chances to make up ground, but perhaps not enough.

Realistic Ralph:

  • It’s actually nice to hear Pastner a little deflated and beat down. Ralph doesn’t wish ill upon Coach Pastner, but in the post-game show he sounded more like a basketball coach, and less like a self-help guru than he’s ever sounded.  Pastner needs to focus on this team and its development – not giving incessant shout-outs to the managers and walk-ons and otherwise saving the world. Ralph likes his basketball coaches a little tired, a little defeated and somewhat cynical (think Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, RIck Pitino, etc…). Sounds like Pastner may finally be getting burnt out on the idea that he can be all things to all people.
  • Memphis opens the AAC schedule with 2 challenging, but winnable, home games against Houston (now coached by Kelvin Sampson) and a surprising Tulane team that sports a 9-2 record and went toe to toe with #13 Washington on the road last night before falling by 9 points late.
  • Memphis’ worst loss thus far was to a Stephen F. Austin squad that is still ranked in the top 100 of the RPI (72).  The others are all top 50 losses:  Wichita State (7), Baylor (30) and Oklahoma State (46).
  • On the other hand, Memphis doesn’t yet have a top 100 RPI win.  It’s best triumph was against North Carolina Central (100).
  • Memphis has some emerging talent, hasn’t quit and is definitely getting better.  That’s what fans want to see.

 

 

Of Thrills, Brawls & Insults from Nashvillians


The tweet came about half an hour after the Miami Beach Bowl ended in thrilling, violent fashion. Clay Travis, a Nashville based sports personality, writer and college football analyst, expressed sarcastically what most followers of college football, and certainly those in SEC country, were probably thinking as they watched or heard about the end of Memphis’ first Bowl win since 2005:

Totally expected BYU to brawl. But really expected better from Memphis.

@ClayTravisBGID

Obviously the structure of Travis’ sarcasm was to flip Memphis and BYU and play on stereotypes. The stereotypes, however, are not of the programs themselves. They are of the cultures within which the respective programs exist. After all, prior to this season and maybe even prior to today Memphis football’s reputation on a national level was one of ineptitude built over decades of irrelevance and reinforced strongly by the humiliating performances of the Larry Porter era.  If there’s one thing that Memphis football wasn’t known for over the past decade it’s fighting.

No, Travis’ comment wasn’t about Memphis the football program, it was about Memphis the city. And about Mormons, but let’s not worry about that right now.  It clearly reflected what Nashvillians, East Tennesseans, and followers of SEC programs throughout the region think of Memphis, Tennessee: violent, unsafe, rough, not worth visiting. Go to Memphis, get beat up. Go to Memphis, get hurt. Go to Memphis, be wary. That’s what Travis was saying. Clearly.

But don’t attack Travis, he was just taking an easy shot.  A shot that all SEC fans, and certainly non-Memphis based Tennesseans love to take when given the opportunity.  And he was doing the Memphis program a favor.

Because to that, Memphis head coach Justin Fuente should say the following:

Yes, you’re exactly right.  We’re Memphians.  We’re of Memphis and from Memphis and proud of it.

And guess what?   We’ll happily fight you too.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Fuente should publicly condone fighting. I’m also not suggesting that Memphis has bad kids. I’m sure Memphis and BYU both have great kids. I’m simply suggesting that this brawl was great for Memphis Football. And spare me a lecture on sportsmanship and class. There’s a time and place for sportsmanship and class – and it wasn’t today in Miami. This whole football game was a brawl and it just happened to continue after Memphis won the game. You don’t go from 3-9 to 10-3 without a serious fight – and that mentality obviously couldn’t be turned off 2 seconds after the game clinching, and season ending, interception. In the heat of that moment, that conclusion, that comeback, a brawl makes perfect sense.  It had to happen.

This brawl – and Clay Travis’ comment – were about the bigger picture. Fuente’s ultimate objective is to build an American Athletic Conference program that can be competitive in the shadow of Clay Travis’ mighty, mighty SEC. You don’t narrow that chasm being nice and backing down. You don’t narrow it by winning sportsmanship awards. You do it by taking on bigger teams and being tougher and maybe drawing a little blood if you need to. After all, as Tom Brady once said, “this is football, not tiddlywinks.”  Indeed.

This was about a national TV audience on a Monday before Christmas watching a team fight, win, and then fight some more. This was about next October 15 (2015) at the Liberty Bowl, and building the kind of football program that can be physically competitive with Ole Miss on that coming day.  And this was about delivering a performance that can attract the kind of recruits that will elevate a program the same way Fuente’s former program (TCU) was elevated – as an underdog with less resources, but more tenacity and discipline and greater willingness to wound and be wounded.

Travis’ insult, no doubt echoed on message boards and Twitter feeds of fan bases throughout SEC country, and the fight that inspired it were both perfect branding for this program on this day.  So was the game itself, and if it got overshadowed in the name of added emphasis on the core message – that Memphis Football has a program, that it’s dangerous and ready to fight – then so be it.  Maybe that’s a good thing.

 

 

Confessions of a Bandwagon Grizzlies Fan

Dear Grizzlies Franchise:

 

I need to come clean about some things.  I feel like our relationship has some definite potential right now, and accordingly I’d like to clear the air about some of the events that have transpired in the past. Before I get into all that, let me just say that (a) I watch or attend almost every playoff game, (b) I absolutely love Chris Wallace, and (c) I have a man crush on MIke Conley.

 

Nevertheless, I can’t escape the lurking notion that I’m a fraud – and the pressure and weight of some secrets has become difficult to tolerate. I feel in some ways the past has kept us stuck and so I’m hoping that after you read this, we’ll be able to move forward with a clean slate. See, the thing is, I’m kind of a bandwagon fan.  There, I said it.  Whew.  That felt good.  Wow, I really do feel better just owning it. Amazing.  I have a few more things to say – just in the way of explanation.  So here goes:

 

    1. I don’t watch every game.  Actually, I don’t watch most of the games,  and I flip around sometimes when I am watching.  LIke take today, for example.  I really did want to watch the Grizz – Cavs game.  After all, Lebron James vs. the Grizzlies is pretty epic.   But what happened was the Cowboys were on at the same time, and ya’ll were getting beat, and ya know….  I just flipped around some.  I feel terrible.  This actually happens a lot, especially if football or college basketball are on.  I want to want to watch all of every game.  I do love you guys a lot, but I mean….ya know…it’s just hard.  I’ll try to do better I promise.
    2. I gave up on Sidney Lowe almost immediately. I should have told you this a long time ago, because it’s been a while. This is really where our relationship first began to falter. I couldn’t even believe I gave up that quickly. Growing up in Memphis, I had longed for pro sports forever but I just wasn’t prepared for all that losing.  I was very much into you at first: I went to the first pre-season game, I watched the draft. I bought gear. I was genuinely pumped.  But the thing is, ya’ll really sucked – and the season was long – and it was so clear you weren’t going to be any good for a long time.  I went to some games and all, but I have to admit I stopped watching. In retrospect I can see that I was ashamed of myself for quitting. My disappointment in myself kept me away for a while. Please don’t be mad at me – I totally got behind Hubie Brown, who was freaking awesome by the way.
    3. I skipped the Marc Iavaroni era entirely.   According to Wikipedia, Iavaroni coached the team from 2007-2009. I missed that one completely. Please understand that during this time the Memphis Tigers were on the greatest run in program history and I lived outside of Memphis. That being said, I can’t sugarcoat this one – I was so checked out during this time period that ya’ll could have moved back to Vancouver and I might not have cared. Our relationship was really bad at this point and it was very much my fault.  But well, maybe not totally my fault – I mean,  I’m not trying to drag up the past but ya’ll did trade Kevin Love for OJ Mayo on draft night and draft Hasheem Thabeet and Donte Green. Sooooo let’s just say there was mutual fault in this situation and forget it.
    4. Because of my loyalty to the Memphis Tigers, I have resented you at times. I realize this is totally unreasonable and that on balance you’ve done way more to help the Memphis Tigers and move them forward than to hurt them in any way. But you have to understand something about timing. Shortly after you got here, my beloved Tigers were relegated to a version of Conference USA that was stripped of all their then-traditional rivals (Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette). John Calipari had yet to really get the program rolling, and even after he did there was always the fear that he would leave and the program would slip. So out of fear and envy I resented your fancy marketing materials and your slick game presentations and your corporate resources and your permanent signage at FedExForum. You may or may not know this, but as a Memphis Tiger fan, I come pre-programmed with an inferiority complex – so playing 2nd fiddle to an NBA team just isn’t easy. That being said, I think most Memphis Tiger fans have come fully around to embrace your presence and just sort of blindly choose to believe it’s going to work out well for both of us whether there’s any empirical evidence to back that up or not.
    5. I don’t like some of your fans. I grew up in Memphis before it was a pro-town. I grew up in Memphis before there was a “cool” team to like and all sorts of “cool” ways to show how “cool” you are because you like them. The town was more fragmented because the allegiances ran to various college teams. So I’m just not used to all this brotherhood, camaraderie and catch phrase mania. As a result, it feels kind of fake and trendy to me….at best it’s foreign. While I certainly get that people are genuinely excited about all the success you’ve had, as I am – I could really do without the 20 year old floozies tweeting #wigsnatch and #gritgrind and talking about how much they love the Grizzlies because Marc is cute.  (Though I have to admit he’s a very good looking man.) I can’t escape the feeling that if you asked the same “fans” what a pick and roll is they’d probably tell you it’s a menu item at one of the trendy new restaurants in Overton Square.

 

There may be some other things that I remember in time – but these are the big ones. Feels good to come clean, really does.  Please know that I’ve been there from the beginning.  I went to an open practice in 2001 at the Pyramid and remember finding it surreal that one of my favorite former Orlando Magic players, Nick Anderson, was wearing a Memphis jersey (you didn’t think I remembered did you?).  I was stoked when Jerry West was hired, even watched the press conference on live TV.   I attended the press conference when you revealed the current uniform and logo.  I once trespassed into FedExForum while it was still being built on New Year’s eve 2004 to check out the progress of construction.   I’d like to think my Grizz fan resume is pretty decent.


In conclusion, please forgive my weakness and disloyalty- and let’s move forward together in a renewed spirit of partnership.

#gritgrind

#wigsnatch

#grizznation

Positive Paul, Negative Nellie & Realistic Ralph (Oral Roberts Edition)

In this feature, we let our friends Paul, Nellie and Ralph each summarize the game and / or the Tigers season to date as they see it. Each individual gets to make 5 points to establish his / her point of view.

 

Positive Paul

 

  • The Tigers have now won 3 games in a row for the first time all season, with another winnable game coming up Tuesday vs. Western Illinois at FedExForum.  It looks likely they’ll enter conference play on New Year’s Eve riding a 4 game win streak.
  • Pookie Powell (14 pts, 7 asts, 6 rbs – 3 tos) looks like an actual point guard – driving to the rim, finding open men, and knocking down open jump shots.
  • Powell, Trashon Burrell (12 pts, 7 rbs), and Avery Woodson (10 pts, 3 stls) are still only 10 games into their first season of D1 basketball, so there could be significant room for growth.
  • Austin Nichols finished with 15 pts, 9 rbs and 8 blocks.  He’s turned into one of the best shot blocking big men in the country.
  • The Tigers had good body language.  Even the guys on the bench who weren’t playing or weren’t playing well (Shaq Goodwin – 0 pts, 3 rbs, 9 minutes) were slapping high 5’s, cheering, staying positive.

 

Negative Nellie

 

  • Oral Roberts sucks.  Oklahoma beat them by 30, 4 days ago and Memphis was only up 6 with 7 minutes to play.
  • Shaq Goodwin can’t be depended on to show up ready to play.  If he’s a Junior and supposed to be a team leader – that’s a big problem.
  • If Memphis’ bigs can’t finish at the rim against Oral Roberts, what’s going to happen when they play UConn, Cincinnati and SMU?  Twice each.
  • Memphis’ backup point guard is a 5’8 kid from somewhere called Kaskaskia Community College.  His Rivals profile has him at 0 stars and lists no other offers.  He clearly struggled in the 2nd Half trying to guard 6’3 Korey Billbury of Oral Roberts.
  • The TIgers still look totally lost defensively at times.  On multiple occasions ORU players were wide open while Memphis players were still discussing whose man was whose.  Shaq looked to be playing a 1 man zone while the rest of the team was in m2m.  Maybe that was intentional, but if so, it didn’t work.

 

Realistic Ralph

 

  • Tulsa (thought to be a middle of the pack AAC) lost to this same Oral Roberts team earlier in the year, which is a reminder that there are going to be some winnable games in the AAC.  Only one team (Tulane, which has played a soft schedule) has less than 3 losses.  The conference is wide open.  In other words, the season could still go either way.
  • The Tigers have some talent, but they’re essentially a team made up of JUCOs and 4-star (in other words, good but not great) high school athletes.   In other words, the season could still go either way.
  • Memphis is 6-4.  The schedule is barely ⅓ complete.  In other words, the season could still go either way.
  • If Memphis doesn’t turn into a much better defensive team through communication, effort and execution then there’s little chance they are going to turn their season around in the long run.
  • Bottom line, the season could still go either way.

Ode to the Shitty Sports Bar

Kids these days.

Kids these days have no idea what it was like to be a sports fan in the 80’s and 90’s. They’ve probably never even been to a shitty sports bar.

When I was a kid, we had to wait for something called a newspaper if we wanted to see a box score.

I would stay up until 4am for the Memphis Commercial Appeal to arrive after a particularly exciting win. “No big deal, Mom, I’ll just sleep until noon.”

In the meantime, I’d rewatch the game on VHS. Unless the machine ate my tape.

The 1992 NCAA tournament game between Penny Hardaway’s Memphis State Tigers, and the Arkansas Razorbacks comes to mind. On a dark, quiet, celebratory morning I ran out into the March dawn, grabbed the paper, ran back in – and spent the next delicious 7 or 8 minutes reading a deadline abbreviated, sterile summary of the game, a 500-word column, and a 10-point news and notes feature (including the box score).

Then I read it again.

And again.

And again.

Because it was all I had. It was all anyone had. What am I supposed to do? Think about something else?

Crumbs in retrospect, but amazing at the time. There were no message boards, no Twitter feeds, no proliferation of pundits. Sure, there were sportswriters – but they wrote articles in their town, for papers in their town, read exclusively by people in their town. We had our sports page, a coach’s TV show and terrible talk radio. If you wanted to know what Tony Kornheiser thought about something, you’d better have a friend in D.C. get some scissors, a stamp and an envelope — and then wait 3 or 4 days.

When I was a kid, there was no ESPN2. At least not until 1993. Even then, there was no ESPNU, no ESPNNews, no SEC Network, no CBS Sports Network, no FS1. There was simply ESPN. And the occasional network game. If your favorite college basketball team had more than 4 or 5 “national” TV games, then you were a Duke fan.

Though most programs and major conferences had local or regional television coverage of their games – the stations which carried such packages were not available outside a defined region on basic cable packages. In other words, in 1996 the Conference USA Game of the Week between Memphis and DePaul, live from the Rosemont Horizon – with Jon Albright doing analysis – was probably available in Memphis, TN on WLMT-30 or some other such station. But it was not available anywhere else in the country and certainly not in Lawrence, KS, where I went to college.

Or maybe it was.  But not in my dorm room.

Maybe it was available at a shitty sports bar.

Ah, the shitty sports bar. The revered, crucial, indispensable, shitty sports bar. On the outskirts of town. With real satellites. Big satellites. And overpriced food. And dirty carpet. Filthy carpet.

And waitresses that acted shocked and put out when I came in and demanded that they find the satellite guide and check for the Memphis – DePaul game.

And check again please. And will you at least try?  And ask the manager, please. And you TOLD ME on the phone you could get the game. WHY DID YOU TELL ME YOU CAN GET THE GAME IF YOU CAN’T GET THE GAME?!?  WHY DID YOU LIE TO ME?!? DO YOU NOT VALUE MY BUSINESS?!? And let me see the book, please.

And GOD DAMN IT let’s just try the other shitty place that’s not really even a sports bar but I think they have a signed Danny Manning jersey on the wall so maybe they’re a sports bar even though deep in my heart I know they’re not – Yea, let’s at least try that place.  But quick, because it’s already probably halftime and we’re probably already losing.

(Not that I would know – because it’s still 1996 and cell phones don’t exist)

When I was a kid, there were no cell phones.

When I was a kid, my brother and I would actually call the news desk of the Commercial Appeal to ask them to tell us the score of the game. They’d chuckle, check the wire, and give us the score. We’d say thank you. Then we’d call back in 10 minutes (or 5) and ask again. If that didn’t work (it usually did) we would find the media guide, get the number for the press row at the games, and call it up for scores. If we needed to pretend to be calling from some other paper, sure, we’d do that.

When I was a kid, you did what you had to do to get a score.

I once had my mother put the phone next to the TV and let me listen. For the entire 2nd half.

Unless we found the game at a sports bar. Yes, the sports bar. There was always hope in a sports bar. The sports bar wasn’t a place, it was an experience. It was a method to prove allegiance. It’s one thing to say you like a particular team. Maybe you have a t-shirt, that’s cute. Or a hoodie. Cool. Oh, you have a sticker on your car. Nice.

It’s one thing to DVR a game, in 2014, and watch the last half (skipping commercials) while laying on the couch after an enjoyable dinner at some trendy restaurant with your friends.  That’s one thing.

It is a whole other thing to spend an hour going through every sports bar in the Yellow Pages, call each one up, ask for the manager, inquire about the satellite equipment, inquire about which packages they have paid for, explain to them that, yes, the University of South Florida does indeed have a basketball team, show up, explain that I’m the guy who called about the Memphis – South Florida game, see the amused look on the waitresses face as I nervously sit down, wait, see the game actually come up, look at the satisfaction on the waitresses face, feel the excitement in myself, order a burger and a drink, sit by myself, sit alone for the next three hours (“I’ll take the check now but I’m not leaving for a long time”) and become gradually more depressed as I watch Memphis’ season end unceremoniously in the quarterfinals of the CUSA tournament.

That…is an entirely different thing.

When I was a kid, we did shit like that.  Because what other option did we have?

Now?  Everything is different now.

It’s like Robert DeNiro’s character at the end of Casino:

“The town will never be the same. After the Tangiers, the big corporations took it all over. Today, it looks like Disneyland.”

In an HD / Digital world, being a fan is simple, convenient. For that reason, students (kids these days) don’t go to games nearly as much. They just watch.

I’m not complaining. Essentially, regional networks are now national networks – a function of live sports being the last refuge of the post-DVR advertisement marketplace. That’s good. I’m happy about it. HD is really pretty awesome. Every AAC (Memphis’ conference) game is on National TV. That’s a beautiful thing. I’m too old to be harassing the Saturday morning manager at Harry T’s right when she walks through the door, before she even has a chance to put coffee on.

But when I was a kid I did it. Because I had to.   

 

Prediction: The Ugly Sweater Party Won’t be Funny Again Next Year

Until 2013, I had never heard of an ugly Christmas-sweater party.   Then, someone invited me to one and explained the concept to me – which at the time seemed fresh, ironic and somewhat humorous.  I was mildly, though genuinely, excited to participate.

 

For about 30 seconds at my first ugly sweater party, I enjoyed looking at each of my friends’ ugly sweaters.  I wouldn’t say it was HILARIOUS!!! –  but it was kind of fun.  Additionally, I derived 15-20 seconds of pleasure playfully mocking the 1 or 2 people who didn’t participate.  (At the time it did not occur to me that I was likely adding to their already manifested social anxiety.)  At that point, I loaded up a few plates of meat balls and made small talk until it was time to leave.   Easy enough to participate, 45 total seconds of enjoyment.  Done.  I have not found the ugly sweater concept funny since.**

 

Nevertheless, the invites keep rolling in.  3 so far in the last year.  Ugly.  Sweater.  Parties.

 

My concerns here are multiple:

  • Are there going to be more of these parties next year?
  • Do other people really find it funny?
  • Is this going to be a “thing” that grows from here and gets all competitive and weird?
  • Is it possible that this is a concept being pushed by clothing manufacturers?
  • Am I too cynical?
  • Am I a big asshole?

 

**Actually, on second thought I did get another 10-15 seconds of enjoyment today from a person wearing a non-holiday, tan sweater with chicken wings on it (not actual chicken wings – that would have been overwrought), but rather chicken wings as the featured sweater design.  This person’s boss nonchalantly said, “that sweater is probably more appropriate for a Super Bowl party.”  So that was a good moment.  Nevertheless, I think it’s time to move on to another concept.

 

 

 

Analysis: Fuente’s New Contract Won’t End Speculation

It was reported on Thursday that Justin Fuente and Memphis have agreed to a new 5-year contract worth 1.4m in 2015 (and increasing by 25k each season thereafter).  Fuente’s buyout remains relatively small at 500k.

 

According to USA Today’s ranking of coaches salaries in 2014, Fuente’s new contract would make him approximately the 66th highest paid coach in the country.  Of course, the 2014 list does not reflect recent hirings and firings, so the ranking is not exact. Nevertheless, Fuente’s 1.4m salary appears to make him the 4th highest paid coach in the American Conference behind Cincinnati’s Tommy Tuberville (2.2m), new SMU coach Chad Morris (reportedly 2m per year), and UCF’s George O’Leary (1.8m).  He was previously the 8th highest paid coach in the American.

 

Though the current cycle of the coaching carousel is perhaps winding down (Pitt and Michigan are still open), this is not a contract that will prohibit Fuente from moving elsewhere at the right opportunity.  That wasn’t the Memphis administration’s goal to begin with since such a contract is beyond their capacity to produce.

 

Fuente has been refreshingly up-front about his approach to other jobs, saying he will listen if there is a great opportunity, but he also values what he and his staff (and players) have built at Memphis.  That philosophy is not going to change, so this contract extension was really designed to reward Fuente and his staff (there is also 150k being added to the assistant pool) for a job incredibly well done. The new contract may perhaps limit the types of jobs that would seem attractive to Fuente, but not by much.

 

The lowest compensated “Power 5” coaches generally make around 1.5m – 1.8m per year – so you probably won’t see Fuente consider places like Pitt (now open) should they show any interest.  Former Pitt coach Paul Chryst earned 1.57m in 2014 before leaving this week for Wisconsin.  Going to a place like Pitt, history and tradition aside, is now arguably a lateral move at least from a financial perspective.  From an intangible perspective keep in mind that the last 2 Pitt coaches have left for other “P5” jobs.

 

On the other hand, should Michigan be lucky enough to pry Dan Mullen from Mississippi State – that (MSU) is the type of job Fuente would have a hard time turning down.  Never mind the rigor of the SEC West.  Money is actually printed in the SEC, where the lowest paid coach is Kentucky’s Mark Stoops at 2.7m.  Mullen currently makes 3m.  Vanderbilt does not report Derek Mason’s salary.

 

It’s somewhat surprising that Fuente’s name, even though it’s very hot, isn’t even hotter.  It would be easy to make an argument that Fuente would have been a better fit at Nebraska than new head coach Mike Riley – who is 61 years old, coming off of a losing record at Oregon State, and has never lost less than 4 games in his entire career.   Fuente just turned what was one of the worst programs in D1 in 2011 into a conference champion and potential 10 win team.  One would have thought that his staff’s ability to win with equal or lesser talent, not to mention his Big XII pedigree, made him a perfect fit in Nebraska, where the challenge has always been trying to overcome the lack of a natural, fertile, recruiting area.  Oh well, Memphis fans are grateful for the oversight.

 

The only factor possibly holding Fuente back at this point is his overall record still sits at 16-20.  This should not scare anyone off given the state of the Memphis program he inherited, but it probably does.  After all, winning the press conference is important and it is hard to get pumped for a guy with a losing record (see Dooley, Derek).  Again, Memphis fans aren’t complaining.  If Fuente stays another year however, the odds are great he’ll flip that number around in 2015 and be one of, if not the hottest coaching name this time next year.

 

On Memphis Football Attendance

Memphis football attendance has always been an interesting topic of discussion and it generated more back and forth this year with some folks hoping for bigger crowds as Justin Fuente’s team chased down and secured the AAC title last month.

 

Well, the NCAA released final regular season attendance figures last week – and Memphis had one of the more impressive increases in the country at +19% from 2013, finishing with a per game average of 33,851.  That doesn’t initially seem like much, especially given that (a) Memphis plays in the heart of SEC country where rival schools easily double that figure and then some, and (b) the Tigers’ home stadium, The Liberty Bowl, seats 2x that many.

 

It should be noted, however, that only Army, UCF, Fresno State, ECU and BYU were schools at Memphis’ level -schools from the so called “group of 5” conferences + FBS independents- that averaged more fans per game.  In other words, Memphis attendance was better than all but 2 schools in the American Athletic Conference, and all but 1 school in the Mountain West Conference.  Nobody in CUSA, the MAC or the Sun Belt averaged as many fans per game as Memphis.  Nor did Boise State, Marshall or Colorado State – the other competitors for the G5 automatic berth in the New Year’s 6 bowl games.  For comparison, Boise averaged 32,504 per game while compiling a record of 11-2 and earning an invite to the Fiesta Bowl.

 

Memphis’ attendance was better than Washington State, Duke and Wake Forest – all of whom are members of the so called “Power 5.”  Memphis’ attendance was virtually identical to SEC neighbor Vanderbilt, whose average was 34,258 per game.

 

Keep in mind all of that happened with some of the worst weather possible for at least 3 of the Tigers’ home dates.  Kudos to the athletic department marketing staff for making games fun and generating more than respectable attendance figures.

 

The State of Memphis Tiger Basketball

This nice little 2-game win streak aside, fans of Tiger basketball have been doing a lot of hand wringing this year.  Attendance is down. Angst is up.  Obviously the almost exclusive subject of discussion is the head coach, Josh Pastner, and rightly so.   The man has overseen a program that, objectively speaking, has taken a precipitous fall from the high of the John Calipari era.  At his introductory press conference, Pastner stated a goal to have “no slippage,” but clearly his current program is more evocative of the Larry Finch or Tic Price era than of its immediate predecessor.  Slippage indeed.

That said, it is still hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is.  As with most things, the answer isn’t simple.

The problem is obviously not a complete lack of talent. Multiple core rotation players were high 4-star recruits (Nick King, Shaq Goodwin, Austin Nichols), each of whom had multiple high major offers.   Similarly, Kuran Iverson, Pookie Powell and Kedren Johnson were all top 100 players with multiple offers.  Trashon Burrell was a highly thought of JUCO prospect.  Other coaches and programs do more with less talent.  Pastner has recruited well – this is not debatable.

The problem, contrary to what some believe, is also not a complete lack of coaching (x’s and o’s) ability.  Pastner’s teams over the course of his first 5 years at Memphis, contrary to the popular narrative, have excelled at offensive execution – consistently ranking among the NCAA leaders in percentage of assists on made baskets.   Furthermore, Pastner’s Memphis teams have won a multitude of close games and road conference games over the past 5 years – showing an ability to execute down the stretch in pressure situations. Though there were certainly times when Pastner was made to look silly by the likes of Rick Majerus, Tim Floyd, etc… the idea that he’s simply rolled out the basketballs to a group of elite athletes without any tactical expertise doesn’t match the facts.

So…

What is the problem?

Before presenting a list of 4 factors that have contributed to the slippage – let’s pause to point out that there might NOT be a problem.  As much as Memphis fans might not want to hear it, it’s possible that a 6-4 record heading towards conference play is simply where the Memphis program ought to be considering the fact they’re breaking in 10 new players and coming off of 4-consecutive NCAA tournaments.  It’s possible that the NIT is a realistic goal every 4 or 5 years while retooling for (optimistically) another set of NCAA bound teams.

That being said, here is a list of 4 factors that have led to the slippage:

 

1. Teams assume the personality of their coach and in this instance that translates to lack of toughness in big games and lack of identity for the program.
Josh Pastner is a tremendous human being.  The attributes that make him so are numerous:  He is kind, relentlessly positive, consistent, principled, and values others needs above his own.  The man returns literally every email sent to him.  He is maniacal about routine and process, which leads him to respect and prepare similarly for every opponent.   As a reflection of its coach, his players generally stay out of trouble, take care of their academic responsibilities and maintain a businesslike approach to the sport. This dedication to preparation, balance and consistency has resulted in a six-year stretch in which the Tigers have been on the wrong end of only a few surprising upsets (Rice, UTEP, SFA, ???).
On the other hand, this relentless insistence on treating every game the same has not worked at all in spotlight games. Pastner’s teams were embarrassed multiple times as he lost 13 consecutive games against ranked teams to start his career. Though they began to turn the tide last year against the likes of Louisville and Oklahoma State, big games this year have again been disastrous (Baylor, Wichita State, Oklahoma State). This has more to do with the philosophical and psychological approach to the games (including failure to trim the rotation), than it does any deficiency in tactical basketball related strategy.  Though it’s childish to suggest that Pastner has to use foul language to be an effective motivator, it’s not unreasonable to point out that his teams routinely fail to rise to the occasion in big moments.  That’s a motivational problem, and it’s on him.
2. Pastner’s teams lack floor leadership because he micromanages his players.
This is a corollary to the point above, and for proof one need look no further than the story of one Joe Jackson.  Jackson was clearly frustrated with the fact that he was never turned loose at any point in his 4 year career. His minutes were always more limited than they should have been. He was pulled too quickly after mistakes.  In a final insult and blow to his confidence, Mike Dixon was brought in before Jackson’s senior year, confusing and cluttering a promising back court situation.  Jackson never complained publicly (other than while he was considering a transfer), but it was obvious that he was held back and he confirmed as much after graduation.
Flashcards, constant providing instruction from the bench, over utilization of substitutions – add it all up and it is obvious that Memphis players are over coached.   The irony of this is it goes completely against the stereotype of the Memphis program, but it’s true.  The only players that seemed to play with any kind of unrestrained passion during the last several years were DJ Stephens and Will Barton. The other great talents passing through the system since 2010- Adonis Thomas, Tarik Black, Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin- have been under utilized, poorly motivated and over-coached (from a scheme, not a skills, standpoint).
3.  Pastner throws rosters together without adequate consideration for how the pieces fit together.
Pastner has spent his summers at Memphis making last minute additions to the roster (Kedren Johnson, Mike Dixon, Calvin Godfrey, David Pellom, etc.). Though Mike Dixon was a crucial factor in several wins down the stretch last year, it’s arguable that having an extra man in the back court destroyed team chemistry.  Jackson regressed from what was an outstanding Junior year.  Furthermore, the effect spilled into the 2014-15 year because the presence of 4 senior guards on the roster (combined with Pookie Powell’s failure to gain initial eligibility, and Markel Crawford’s redshirt) meant the program entered the current season with no experienced guards.
Likewise, Godfrey’s meltdown during the Oklahoma State game suggested maybe he wasn’t the ideal addition for a team already fairly deep in the front court.  Team chemistry is important and Memphis has had very few players that seem to embrace the 10th, 11th, or 12th spot on the bench.  Maybe most programs struggle with this, but Pastner gets paid 2.75m per year to avoid such problems.
4.  Scheduling Malpractice
It was a scheduling crime to throw a team with 10 new players and no back court experience up against Wichita State to start the 2014-2015 season. The blame for this probably sits as much with Tom Bowen and Wren Baker, as I’m not sure Pastner had much say in committing to play the Shockers.  It was also made clear that money was a driving factor in this game (the payoff funded the Canada trip).  Good coaches and programs know how to build a schedule that suits the current roster while not ignoring RPI considerations. This program has rarely, if ever, seemed to get that task right.   If ever there was a year for a schedule front end loaded with easy wins, this was it.  Not that the schedule has been murderers row – but it could have been more specifically tweaked for the realities of this team.  Again, Pastner clearly has less say in the schedule than his predecessor had, but the lack of scheduling savvy is clearly one of the factors in the program’s regression.
If one were to categorize these issues into a broad category, it could be said the problem is program management and player management.   These are fixable issues, but they do start with the man in charge – the man who gets paid 2.75m per year to solve them. He’ll have time – but it will require an open-mindedness and willingness to change his approach in certain areas.