Memphis failed in their first test of the season losing big to Oklahoma State, but passed their second one against a solid LSU team by the score of 76-69 in the semifinals of the Old Spice Classic. With the win, Memphis will now have another shot against Oklahoma State on Sunday evening.
Much of the talk about Memphis revolves around their guard play, namely Joe Jackson, Michael Dixon, and Chris Crawford. Against LSU, however, freshman forward Austin Nichols was the story. Nichols finished with 19 points and pulled down eight rebounds to lead the Tigers. The fact that Nichols has gotten off to such a nice start as a freshman — he is averaging 17 points and 7.3 rebounds in the past three games — is of critical importance, especially considering that fellow freshman big man Dominic Woodson is still adjusting to the college game.
Woodson is a big body standing at 6-foot-10 and weighing 310 pounds, and young big men often take longer to develop than other players. When Shaq Goodwin went to the bench in the first half with foul trouble, Woodson came in and took a couple of bad shots and picked up two fouls. Pastner yanked him after the second foul and he never saw any time in the second half.
Memphis is a guard oriented team, everyone knows that. But, the emergence of Nichols in the frontcourt to go along with the already solid Shaq Goodwin, makes Memphis a much better team in the half court due to their post play.
Things looked bleak midway through the second half as LSU extended their lead to 57-49 on a Malik Morgan layup, but Memphis responded with a quick 11-2 run over a two minute stretch to take the lead 60-59. Nichols had key buckets on consecutive possessions to fuel the run.
The knock on Memphis and Josh Pastner has been their inability to win big games. Pastner has had little issue running through Conference USA with ease during the past two seasons, but earning victories in the non-conference portion of their schedule against quality opponents hasn’t been easy. With Memphis making the transition to the AAC and facing the likes of Louisville, UConn, and Cincinnati, they won’t have the luxury of feasting on mediocre competition.
Tonight was definitely a step in the right direction for Pastner and the Tigers. They responded well when LSU doubled their halftime advantage from four to eight midway through the second half and showed poise down the stretch, which hasn’t always been the case for Pastner-coached teams. On the surface, a win over LSU may not seem like much, but LSU was coming off a dominating win over St. Joseph’s and figures to be one of the top teams in the SEC.
In the championship game of the Old Spice Classic on Sunday, Memphis will look to avenge their 101-80 loss to Oklahoma State less than two weeks ago.