If You Squint Hard Enough, You Can See The Future of Memphis Basketball


If you squint right now, you can see the version of the Memphis Basketball program that David Rudd saw when he hired Tubby Smith in April of 2016.

After another loss or two, and another round of primal screams from the local miserables, you might not be able to see it for a while.

But right now you can see it.

Right now you can see the rough outlines of what Rudd surely had in mind when he hired Smith to lead a program that had long since been subsumed by dysfunction.

Again, it’s hazy now.

But if you try hard enough you can see each of the following features:

  1. Raw coaching ability.

Tubby Smith has taken a group of 11 unheralded newcomers, mixed them with 2 unheralded returning players and produced a group that, after 3 consecutive wins, suddenly looks capable of competing in the top half of the American Athletic Conference.

In the immortal words of Willie ‘Mays’ Hayes, “Not bad for a has-been and a couple of never-will-be’s, huh?”

Sure, the Tigers could still fall apart and live down to the preseason expectations of finishing 9th or 10th in the 12 team league (at least one preseason publication had them dead last), but for the time being they’re competitive.

Heck, if Smith can figure out how to spell Jeremiah Martin for about 5 minutes each game, the Tigers may just be able to finish as strong as they currently look.

For the time being, a roster that was incessantly ridiculed by “experts” throughout the off-season looks cohesive, bought into an offensive and defensive concept, and capable of beating anyone in the AAC, with the likely exception of Cincinnati and Wichita State.

In the 7 years before Smith arrived, Memphis never had a set rotation. Players grew frustrated not knowing their role and the identity of the team fluctuated from season to season – if not week to week.

Contrariwise, Smith is a man who tunes out the criticism and simply coaches his team based on the basic principles (packline defense, motion offense) he’s employed for 3 decades. About a week ago Smith realized his rag-tag new roster wasn’t executing his somewhat complicated motion offense well enough against superior athletes, so he simplified things.

The Tigers haven’t lost since.

2. The Exact Right Mixture of Memphis Guys & Non-Memphis Guys

Speaking of Jeremiah Martin, the Junior from Mitchell High School in Memphis, TN is averaging 18.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and 4.1 apg.

Jeremiah Martin is the star of this Memphis team, and he’s been given free reign offensively.

Imagine what Joe Jackson might have done in a similar featured role.

Imagine what Tyler Harris might do.

Make no mistake, Martin is being given free reign because Smith doesn’t have a better option, because Martin is surrounded by less talented guys that can’t create their own shot.

Yet, the mother of all invention is necessity and out of the current roster predicament Tubby Smith may just have stumbled on a recruiting strategy that could work.

Surrounding one or two talented Memphis scoring guards with a bunch of guys willing to grab rebounds, defend, take charges and generally do the dirty work necessary for success has worked pretty well the last couple of weeks.

I’m of the opinion that a roster stacked with Memphis guys won’t work. Not enough spotlights or basketballs. Again, the years directly preceding Smith’s arrival serve as Exhibit A.

And we all know Tubby Smith isn’t going to recruit like John Calipari. Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose aren’t walking through that door.

So why not feature one or two Memphis guys (Martin, Harris?) and surround them with guys content to get junk buckets (Kyvon Davenport), bang around the basket (Mike Parks), stroke 3’s (Kareem Brewton, Jamal Johnson) and block shots (Conor Vanover)?

You’ve got to have talent to win, but the most talented team doesn’t always win.

3. Tubby’s Personality.

Forget about the recruiting debate for minute, please.


Hear me out.

Tubby Smith is the perfect personality to coach at Memphis.

First of all, he’s a highly respected African American man who values discipline and class. I think that matters in Memphis. Race issues have haunted this city, and the Memphis program for a long time. Having Tubby Smith lead the program just looks and feels right to me. I’m fearful my opinion in this regard reveals some latent racial insensitivity (why should it matter?)  but I’m rolling with it anyway.

Secondly, Tubby is old school, which is also aesthetically appealing. Just this week, he referred to the Cincinnati game as, “an ass whipping.” Apparently after that game, according to the Commercial Appeal’s Mark Gianatto, Smith could be heard from down the hall chewing out his team.

After the Tulsa game Smith said, “we’re going to be who I am.”

At a time when college basketball feels dirtier than ever, when programs are literally under investigation by the FBI, it’s nice to have a guy that says, I know what the hell I’m doing, so kindly leave me alone and let me do what I’ve done for 30 years because I know it’s going to work.

It’s especially nice if it’s actually working, as it has for the past week.

4. Regional Rivalries

John Calipari shunned regional rivalries because he built a transcendent national program.

He crapped on Arkansas because he could – and it was great.

Pastner tried to keep the same philosophy, but it didn’t work because his teams weren’t good enough.

As with recruiting, Memphis must now find a new path forward when it comes to scheduling and filling FedExForum. It appears they may be finalizing a new (retro) approach:

Getting the Vols and Hogs into FedExForum could make November and December college basketball in Memphis great again!

And if Memphis is only needing to keep one or two local players away from SEC schools anyway, the fear factor should be nonexistent.

Smart move.

So yea, if you squint right now you can see the broad outlines of what David Rudd and some other folks clearly thought Tubby Smith could build the Memphis basketball program into.

The odd news this weekend that former coach Josh Pastner is suing a man whom he had once let deep inside his former program is further confirmation of how strange and dysfunctional the Memphis program had become, despite local expert claims to the contrary.

Remember, Pastner also had hired and fired his own brother in law, overseen a parade of high profile transfers (including one who threatened to sue the university) and two consecutive post-season whiffs.

So no, Gary Parrish, Tubby Smith didn’t create a mess at Memphis. He walked into one.

But never mind all that. Let’s finally move on.

Here’s hoping that the Tigers win Tuesday against UConn in front of what should be the largest crowd of the season. Here’s hoping that Tyler Harris decides he’ll take the torch from Jeremiah Martin as the next great scoring guard out of Memphis.

Here’s hoping that a new vision of Tiger basketball begins to appear in the eyes of fans and skeptical media – the vision that the powers had when they hired Smith in the first place.

(Photo Courtesy of Philadelphia Inquirer / Charles Fox)