It was almost inevitable that the Memphis Tigers would have a sluggish game Wednesday night at home against the Central Florida Golden Knights.
After all, senior post man Pierre Henderson-Niles was dismissed from the team on Monday, leaving a fawning gap in the playing rotation.
"He's going in one direction, and we're going another," Memphis head coach Josh Pastner said in summarizing why he'd made the shocking decision. "It was nothing criminal or derogatory. For whatever reason, he saw things in a different way than I saw things."
It’s also logical that the team would be reeling somewhat from the loss to Gonzaga over the weekend—as well as the distractions and uncertainty that the entire Henderson-Niles situation must have caused.
But in the midst of all the column inches being written about Henderson-Niles’ dismissal from the Memphis basketball team, not a lot is being mentioned about how many different ways this will hurt the Tigers.
Emotionally and in style of play, this team is going to suffer. His teammates are going to miss the young man that they refer to fondly as “the Big Guy” or “the Big Man.”
“It’s kind of hard for me personally and for Doneal [Mack],” said Henderson-Niles’ fellow senior, guard Willie Kemp. “We came in with Pierre. He was a big part of this team. He just had some things going on...but he’s still our teammate, and we still love him like a brother.”
Henderson-Niles also had a significant impact on team members who haven’t been around him nearly as long as Kemp has.
“I didn’t get to see what was going on on the bench,” said junior college transfer Will Coleman, “but from what I hear, everybody tells me that Pierre was my biggest cheerleader when I was in the game. I miss the Big Guy.
“Even when it all got out that he was leaving and all that stuff, to me, it felt like somebody had died. It was all over the paper, the way people were talking about it and stuff like that.
“This was a big win [over Central Florida]; yes, yes, yes. It makes us appreciate it more because we had to work that much harder, knowing [our bench] was so short.”
“It’s different [without Henderson-Niles],” admitted second-year Tiger Roburt Sallie. “I’ve been knowing Pierre for two years. [Pierre and I] have a real tight bond. For the rest of my life, he’s somebody that will be in my life.
“I wish he was here.”
Even first-year Tiger star Elliot Williams feels the impact of PHN’s departure.
“It’s weird,” he said point-blank. “I’ve been on this team for a year now, and he’s been a great teammate. But we’ve got to move on. He was a great teammate, but we’re all we have now. I’m gonna miss him.”
So even though first-year Head Coach Josh Pastner prefers not to dwell on the loss of Henderson-Niles, and although he minimizes the emotional impact on his team, it is naïve for fans to think that the young men left behind to complete the season do not miss him.
Even beyond the emotional component, though, the 76-70 victory over the UCF Golden Knights exposed the one area in which Memphis will feel the loss of Henderson-Niles the most: defense.
The constant component to Memphis’ success all season long has been the defensive pressure. The Tigers have consistently forced the opposition to shoot poorly and to cough up the basketball regularly.
However, we need to give credit where it’s due: Henderson-Niles was a key reason why this Memphis team could do that.
PHN is a unique specimen because he is able to do things on the basketball court that very few men his size can do. He has remarkable footwork; in practice, his spin moves and crossovers were better than even many of the Tiger guards.
His nimbleness and quick hands allowed him to switch off on pick-and-rolls and mark the opposing point guards. This allowed the Tigers precious extra seconds to shift on defense and find favorable matchups instead of being left in mismatches and exposed to easy shot attempts.
It also cut off driving lanes and helped keep opposing guards out of the paint.
Additionally, Henderson-Niles has played basketball in the post all his life, as opposed to the few years of competitive ball that Coleman has logged.
This is important because what many people breathlessly call “good instincts” in a basketball player—anticipating movement, jumping passing lanes, and making smart gambles that do not leave teammates unnecessarily exposed—is actually a result of experience.
You play enough basketball, and you can “see” in your mind what a player is trying to set up—and you can combat it, if you have the guts, the speed, and the skill.
Henderson-Niles has all three qualities in spades.
Looking back over the season's statistics, you will find that Memphis has allowed the opposition to shoot more than 45 percent from the floor just eight times in 24 games, and 50 percent or better a mere four times (exactly .500 twice, at that).
What is the common denominator in those defensive performances?
Besides the Kansas game (and let’s face it, they’re the Jayhawks, yet they still only shot 46.5 percent from the field) and the Texas-El Paso loss (when PHN had a dislocated finger), Henderson-Niles played no more than 16 minutes in the eight games when Tiger foes shot more than 45 percent—and was in foul trouble in most of them.
Of course, against UCF, who converted field goals at a 53.1 percent pace (behind only Syracuse at 54.5, against whom PHN played 16 minutes before fouling out), Henderson-Niles didn’t play at all.
Even more telling, however, is the fact that Memphis has committed more turnovers than they have forced only two times all season long: against Gonzaga, when the Tigers coughed up a season-high 15 turnovers and forced 12 (in a game where PHN played indifferently) and against UCF, when the Tigers created just 10 miscues.
In other words, when Henderson-Niles played significant minutes and came with his game face, the Tiger defense was stingier and more capable of forcing turnovers.
It is too early to say whether or not this trend can be continued without “the Big Man.”
There are now plenty of minutes for Angel Garcia, who is still not able to play above the rim on his surgically repaired right knee, and D.J. Stephens, a guard in high school who plays down low simply because of his scintillating vertical and ever-revving motor.
Coleman and Wesley Witherspoon, who played significant minutes in the post over the last few weeks as Henderson-Niles' attitude and production waned, will need to step forward and do battle with the Derek Caracters, Jerome Jordans, Arnett Moultries, and Hassan Whitesides of Conference USA.
Perhaps Coleman said it best of Henderson-Niles' absence:
“His presence is missed.”
The Tigers will not allow this to become an excuse for losing, to their credit. As Roburt Sallie said:
“You know, we’ll have to move on. We don’t want to wallow on that too much. We have to move forward.”
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.