As if it’s not enough that the Tigers have only 10 scholarship players to begin with, the team is now having to deal with an ever-growing assortment of bumps, illnesses, and injuries.
Against Texas-El Paso, Memphis only played seven, as freshman D.J. Stephens was held out of the game because of illness.
With the high-scoring Houston Cougars calling for a visit this Saturday at the FedEx Forum, Memphis Head Coach Josh Pastner realizes that he will likely have to dig deeper into his bench to give his team its best chance at success.
“If we’ve got to go eight or nine (players), we’ll do what we’ve got to do, whatever it takes to win,” Pastner said at a Friday press conference. “D.J. (Stephens) did not feel well last game. He did not practice for two days, had to have an IV. He was not allowed to play (Wednesday) morning. At game time, he got cleared.
“So he could have played, but I didn’t feel comfortable putting him in. I’ll be honest with you; he hadn’t done anything for about 72 hours. So out of safety for his health, I decided that game was not the game for him.”
Additionally, burly senior post starter Pierre Henderson-Niles played the entire game against UTEP with a dislocated—PHN calls it “broke”—middle finger on his right (shooting) hand.
Henderson-Niles gutted his way to seven points and nine rebounds with the injured digit.
“He’ll be OK; he did practice (Thursday),” Pastner said. “We’ll see how he does (Friday), and we expect him to go (Saturday against Houston). That’s what I’ve been told. But he is banged up.”
Henderson-Niles said he was hurt in a freakish off-court accident.
“I did it before the game Wednesday,” he said. “One of my teammates (Henderson-Niles later fingered fellow senior Willie Kemp) had pushed a door back on it. Right now, it’s broke, but I’ll be OK with it. I’m just gonna wrap it up and try to stick with it.”
Speaking of Kemp, he is playing with a balky left wrist that is iced after every game. He got dinged up in practice about three weeks ago but is playing through it.
Sophomore sensation Elliot Williams tapes his left wrist before games because of a hard fall against Southern Mississippi, and he still wears a brace on his right knee despite proclaiming that the joint is “95 percent.”
Sophomore Wesley Witherspoon, who has scored at a 12.2-points-per-game clip duringthe last 10 games, including a career-high 22 points on Jan. 13 against East Carolina, suffered a scary spill two games ago against Rice—and he left unable to put weight on his left knee. He did return to the contest, and he showed no signs of complications in the subsequent matchup versus UTEP.
The biggest issue, though, is not so much game performance as it is lack of ability to simulate other teams and be competitive during practice.
“It’s hard; we’ve got seven guys, maybe nine at the most,” PHN said. “Those seven are gonna play a lot of minutes. And it’s hard in practice. We really can’t do too much; we can’t stay on our feet too long.
“So we’ve just gotta do what we can in practice and try to save our legs for the game. But then again, we still gotta stay ready for the team coming up the next game.”
Henderson-Niles does not believe fatigue is an excuse for poor performances.
“This is like the 16th, 17th game of the year (actually No. 19) right here, so there (aren’t) too many things you can say about fatigue or being tired or all that,” he assessed. “We’re just gonna have to stick it out. We do enough running in practice, so we’re gonna be good.”
Williams also doesn’t buy fatigue as a possible reason the team has a difficult time closing out opponents at the end of games.
“It was more (poor) execution,” Williams admitted. “We didn’t execute the game plan right towards the end (versus UTEP). We’ll get better at it.
“A lot of it is being more poised on the offensive end, and also experience, being in that situation. We’ve been in that situation a couple of times now, and you get better with experience.”
The team is coming off a heartbreaking 72-67 loss at home, having clawed its way to within three (70-67) on a clutch long ball from Roburt Sallie with 48.3 seconds left. The coaches are doing all they can to keep the team’s morale high.
“I think Coach Pastner and the rest of the coaching staff have done a good job of explaining that was a tough loss, but at the same time, we’ve got another game (on Saturday),” said Williams. “We’ve got a team that beat UTEP, and it’s gonna be a tough game for us.
“We still can win the conference; we’ve been stressing that. We’ve got a tough run coming up.”
“We can’t have any lingering effects from this carrying over,” Pastner confided. “There’s so much basketball to be played. The conference race is wide open.
“Game by game, we need a positive mental attitude, a positive outlook. Keep it exciting, keep energized, keep passionate about what our goals are. That’s what we’re focused on.”
Henderson-Niles believes some of his teammates are still dwelling on their latest loss.
“I think some guys still (have) a hangover from the loss, but then again, we’ve just got to get used to it. We’ve got to bounce back. We can’t stick on that (loss), we can’t dwell on it. We’ve got to move on.”
Moving on will mean containing Aubrey Coleman, Kelvin Lewis and the explosive Houston Cougars Saturday night. It will be a unique challenge.
Coleman leads the nation in a rather unusual combination of categories: scoring (25.3) and steals (3.3) per game. He is as strong as a bull and rebounds well (7.4 per game), and he has numerous ways to take over a game.
“He’s a pro, there’s no doubt about that,” Pastner says glowingly. “He can just score at any time. He’s able to make threes, he’s able to get into the paint, he makes free throws. He’s a big-time scorer, and that’s why he’s the leading scorer in the country.”
He and Lewis (17 ppg, 4.2 rpg) spearhead a lethal Cougar attack that leads Conference USA in scoring (82.7 ppg) while committing the fewest turnovers (9.3 per outing).
In fact, the Cougars have lowered their turnovers given up in each of the last five seasons. The team is on pace to lead C-USA in scoring and fewest turnovers committed for the second year in a row.
If the Tigers want to make the NCAA Tournament this season, stifling Houston would be a huge—and vital—step in the right direction.
Leroy Watson, Jr. is a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist as well as a credentialed writer for Rivals, assigned to cover the Memphis Tigers for both entities
This article can also be read at memphis.rivals.com