Memphis Tigers: Young Team Bristles at Idea of Being Soft or Underdogs
It's a word that's a prerequisite for toilet paper and bath towels, the kiss of death for athletes. Sure, you want to be described as having "soft hands" if you're a wide receiver in football or even a post player in basketball, but other than that, it's anathema to sportsmen everywhere.
It's a word that the 2010-'11 Memphis Tigers have heard swirling around them, and they don't like it one bit.
"We've heard all the comments about us being soft and all that stuff, so we figured we'd get out there and touch (LSU) up a little bit, let 'em know we're here," freshman guard Chris Crawford said in the locker room following the Tigers' 70-61 victory over LSU in Tupelo, Miss.
Even Josh Pastner himself bristles at the idea that he "has a soft team." When faced with a question on the subject during his press conference immediately following the Memphis 72-68 home win over Miami, the coach's countenance changed and his tone became one of irritation.
"We're two-and-oh, so that's the bottom line," was his terse reply. "People can say what they want, but we still got a 'W'. And the other thing is, people talk about 'tough,' 'soft,' this and that, but the bottom line is production. Miami is a tough team. We came away with the win and it wasn't because of softness, it was because we were able to get the 'W'. A lot of the rebounds we missed were a credit to Miami."
Perhaps one of the key reasons the talk of being "soft" is so prevalent around the Memphis basketball program is because the person using the word the most is a prominent member of the Memphis media. But is this an honest observation, or is there some personal agenda involved?
It's easy to Tweet about this Memphis team being "soft" when Western Kentucky is plus-15 in the rebounding battle during the first half of the game, yet when the contest ends and Memphis is only minus-two in the category, shouldn't credit be given to the Tigers for dramatically cutting the gap and owning the boards in the second half versus a very strong, athletic Western Kentucky team?
Even more disturbing, though, are comments made by this same member of the Memphis media while standing outside the Tiger locker room after games.
Saying last year's Tiger team "is just terrible; Michael Jordan couldn't save this bunch" was one thing. But saying blithely a couple of weeks ago "this team is a bunch of pussies," that they're "too soft to compete with Kansas," and that Wesley Witherspoon "will get [screwed] in the [behind] by Marcus Morris again" (profanities redacted) seems to me to cross the line.
Especially considering the person in question looks like he's in better shape to battle with a dozen doughnuts than a 6'7", 225-pound power forward himself. But I digress...
In fact, Witherspoon played against WKU with one of the nastiest gashes on his chin I've seen in a long time, suffered versus Arkansas State, as well as needing ice on his right knee following the WKU contest; freshman Tarik Black competed against ASU and WKU with stitches in his shin; freshman Will Barton added to his collection of bumps and bruises (including a nasty floor burn on his left shoulder) by sporting about a nine-inch scratch in the locker room after WKU that was still bleeding; and Angel Garcia, who probably has the "s" word hurled at him more than anyone else, miraculously returned to the floor last year just seven months after ACL surgery, an unprecedented figure for such a high-level athlete, according to my research.
The young Tigers all responded to questions about the perception of their toughness (or lack thereof) in a variety of ways.
"We're not soft at all," Will Barton says defiantly. "Some people have got their own opinion; I don't care what nobody say. We know who we are. We're gonna come out their Tuesday, play hard, rebound, defend, go out there and give it all, and get this win. That's all I care about: winning."
Will Barton further rejects the idea that his team will be underdogs when they take the court at the iconic Madison Square Garden arena, the Mecca of Basketball.
"I didn't know we were underdogs; who said that?" he quizzed with an arched eyebrow.
When the idea of Kansas being higher-ranked and the logical betting favorites was proffered, Will Barton dismissed the idea.
"I don't look at betting lines; I just go by my team," he said with a shake of his head. "We'll see what it is Tuesday."
"You know, everybody's going to form their own opinions," sophomore walk-on Charles Holt, one of the few Tigers who were active for last year's Kansas tilt, began, "but we know our toughness level. We know how tough we can be, and how we can grind out every game, night-in and night-out. So for folks to say that, that's fine, but it's up to us to go out there and play hard regardless."
When confronted with the idea that 'some people feel Kansas is too tough for this Tiger team to beat,' senior post threat Will Coleman let out an irritated sigh and shook his head before speaking and taking the high road.
"You know, we've never been the kind of team to give the media bulletin board kind of stuff," he said carefully, "not that I know of. We're just gonna go up there on Tuesday and just play as hard as we can. Handle our business and get the 'W.' Nothing harsh or anything, but someone's gotta win and someone's gotta lose; we'll just go play Tiger basketball and I think we'll be fine.
"Me, Wesley, Charles, Preston, Drew, D.J. We all want some get back. Last year was a bitter, bitter taste in our mouths, losing by two. We were so close, and I think we all see this as an opportunity."
"I definitely feel that we are not a soft team, we're just a young team," sophomore D.J. Stephens said firmly. "And with that, we have some growing to do. But as the year goes on, we'll be able to make a statement, because that's what we stress everyday in practice: defensive rebounding. As the year goes on, we'll get better and better at it."
"People will talk; we just let 'em talk," junior team leader Wesley Witherspoon said directly. "That has nothing to do with how we play."
And one last comment from scrappy freshman guard Joe Jackson from White Station High School here in Memphis, who paused and clearly gave the subject some thought before speaking:
"The way our team is, we step up when it's time. A team like Kansas, they've got bigs, but I know our bigs are gonna be prepared. They need to match up. I know with the Morris twins, Will (Coleman) and Tarik (Black) are gonna take the challenge. All people seem to want to talk about is the Morris twins and how we're gonna guard them. At the end of the day, they (the Morrises) ain't gonna beat us alone, it's gonna take a team to beat us."
One thing is certain: win or lose against Kansas, the Tigers probably won't silence the talk of being soft. But then again, as long as they keep on winning, I don't get the feeling that they really care. Sure, they'd love to be known as some group of unbeatable beasts—who wouldn't?—but this bunch seems to be comfortable in their own skin. That's a good sign as the 2010-'11 campaign continues and picks up momentum heading into January.
Leroy Watson, Jr. is a Bleacher Report Senior Writer and the Managing Editor of TigerSportsReport.com and may be reached via e-mail: Leroy@tigersportsreport.com or follow him on Twitter: @leroywatsonjr
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