BOZICH | Tubby Smith needs win over Louisville more than he did at Kentucky
Tubby Smith will lead Memphis against Louisville Saturday at Madison Square Garden -- and the pressure is on Smith to get Memphis fans excited about the Tigers' program again.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – This is my theory on Tubby Smith:
If his coaching prime had unfolded in the Seventies and Eighties, Smith would have been an absolute titan in college basketball, a certain Naismith Hall of Famer, a guy with multiple Final Fours and maybe a second NCAA championship.
Tubby needs control. Tubby needs structure. Tubby likes guys who follow the script. Tubby likes defense.
Tubby, 66, needs players who like all those things without challenging his priorities and process.
That formula thrived several generations ago. It worked two decades ago when Smith won big at Tulsa and Georgia and then took the players Rick Pitino left at Kentucky and won the 1998 NCAA title.
I wouldn’t fuss if that formula worked today.
But it’s not the preferred operating procedure. Too many players are not about the process. They’re about touches and developing their game to realize their dreams to get to the next level. They change AAU programs, high schools and colleges as thoughtlessly as they change sneakers.
The unrelenting churn is one reason we see Smith at Memphis with a 7-2 team that is ranked more like a 2-7 team – No. 152 in Ken Pomeroy’s computer formula; 158 in Jeff Sagarin predictor ratings and 129 in the Ratings Percentage Index.
Here is a more alarming number: 5,437.
That is the average attendance for the Tigers’ seven home games.
If that number appears alarming, it should – and not because Memphis plays in an NBA facility that seats 18,119. That number is a 43 percent decrease from the 2017 average of 9,622 during Smith’s first season. It is a jarring 55 percent drop from the 12,028 average in 2016, a season that led to Josh Pastner being encouraged to leave Memphis for Georgia Tech.
Don’t ask what Memphis averaged in 2009, John Calipari’s final season. That number was 16,933, the eighth highest in America.
Smith has always been a fine, dependable man. But public relations has not been one of his strengths. Attendance says it’s not working in Memphis. Recruiting numbers say the same thing. Smith has one player signed for 2018, which explains why Scout.com ranks the Tigers’ class 10th best in the American Athletic Conference and No. 118 in the nation.
Those numbers will not change Saturday. Memphis is scheduled to play Louisville at Madison Square Garden in New York City at noon.
It’s the kind of game Tubby needs to win to change the alarming narrative around his program.
Smith and Lon Kruger of Oklahoma are the only coaches who have directed five programs to the NCAA Tournament. Smith will need to do some of his best work to add Memphis to a list that includes Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky, Minnesota and Texas Tech.
Yes, Memphis is 7-2. Do a deeper dive into the Tigers’ season.
You’ll uncover a 2-point win over Northern Kentucky. Another 2-point win (in double overtime) over Mercer. A one-point win over a Samford team that has lost eight of its first 10 games.
The Tigers lack a Top 75 win – with losses to Alabama and UAB.
These are not the Derrick Rose/Chris Douglas-Roberts Tigers of Calipari. They’re not the Penny Hardaway Tigers of Larry Finch. They’re not the Keith Lee/Andre Turner Tigers of Dana Kirk.
Smith’s roster has been gutted by a string of transfers since the end of last season, led by the Dedric and K.J. Lawson to Kansas.
There is talk fans are already itching for change, perhaps to Hardaway. Can Hardaway coach? Probably. Can he recruit? There is no doubt about that.
He has already lured two top players from his summer AAU program to Memphis East High School, led by center James Wiseman, a center most recruiting gurus consider one of the Top 5 prospects in the Class of 2019.
You know the way this story is going. Smith brought Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans and other talented guys to UK but swimming with the sharks was not his specialty.
Smith remains a no-nonsense, highly principled leader in an era where nonsense is not only tolerated, it is encouraged. He’s less than two full seasons into his five-year, $15.45 million contract and speculation about his ability to make it to next season percolates.
It’s not surprising when you consider how completely Memphis basketball has disappeared from the national radar since Calipari left for Kentucky.
Beating Louisville would not stop that conversation. But it might give Smith a day or two to exhale.
I asked one Division I coach who knows both teams to analyze Saturday’s game. This is what he said:
“Memphis is a poor shooting team. Only (Jeremiah) Martin and (Jamal) Johnson can shoot the three. Their main guys are Martin (a guard) and (Kyvon) Davenport (a forward).
“Their centers have strength but no lift. They will struggle finishing inside against Louisville’s length and athleticism.
“They’re a good defensive team and a good rebounding team. Louisville must keep them off the offensive glass and out of transition
“If they do that, Louisville should win easily. Their main guys are Martin (a guard) and (Kyvon) Davenport (a forward). They play very hard but Memphis is not very talented. Will battle for 40 minutes, though.”
Tubby Smith’s teams have always battled for 40 minutes. But for Smith, the battle has never been as fierce as it has been in Memphis.
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