Do they understand yet?
When you’re the Memphis Tigers and you’re ranked 18th in the country and most of the basketball world thinks you’re a fraud, you don’t do this.
You don’t come out after a nine-day break and a humbling loss to Kansas and play like you’d rather be shooting video for the And-1 Mixtape. You don’t lollygag through the first half, dribble carelessly into traffic, throw wild shots at the rim and then miss free throws.
You don’t let Austin Peay out-score you 21-0 in a run that spans both halves, putting you behind 15 points at home to a 6-6 team whose best player was injured in practice last week.
The Tigers may have escaped — and I mean escaped — 70-68 on a wild Thursday night at FedExForum, but it’s hard to call this a win. Because right now, despite Memphis’ 8-1 record, the issues are obvious.
Too many handlers whispering selfish poison into these talented young players’ ears. Too many assistant coaches worried about their next raise, rather than the next game. Too many fingers being pointed at the wrong targets, when a look in the mirror would suffice.
When the Tigers put all of that aside Thursday, when they finally seemed to understand the level of desperation and energy and togetherness it takes to win at the highest level, they thrived.
With junior transfer Charles Carmouche playing as hard as he ever has, setting a tone that seemed to spread through most of the lineup, the Tigers erased their stunning 43-28 deficit in exactly five minutes and committed just one turnover in the final 17 minutes after coughing it up 23 times in the first 28.
But even then, Memphis could not put away the Governors, needing a 10-foot runner with 14 seconds left by freshman Antonio Barton just to get to overtime, where freshman Chris Crawford added to his growing collection of clutch shots with two huge 3-pointers.
“Let’s talk about the positive,” coach Josh Pastner said. “We found a way to win.”
Of course, nearly a third of the way through the schedule, survival shouldn’t exactly rank high on this team’s list of accomplishments — especially after a similar overtime scare from Arkansas State on Dec. 1 and a Kansas wake-up call sandwiched in between.
If neither of those two experiences got the Tigers’ attention, you have to wonder what will.
Because even without Wesley Witherspoon, who is nursing a torn meniscus, it’s clear that what plagues Memphis has little to do with talent and everything to do with leadership, toughness and the ability to play as a team.
That harsh spotlight will fall mostly on Memphis’ two best players in freshmen Will Barton and Joe Jackson, who combined to make just 5 of 19 field goals against Austin Peay and seem no closer to understanding the definition of a good shot than they were at Madison Square Garden.
“Feeling lower than I ever have as a basketball player,” Barton tweeted on Thursday, not realizing things wouldn’t be so bad if he’d shelve his one-and-done ambitions and let the NBA decide when it’s ready for him, which in all likelihood won’t be this coming June.
Meanwhile, the Tigers would do well to fall in line behind Carmouche, who played like a man possessed during the crucial stretch of the second half that got them back in the game. He was making shots, going after rebounds with authority and playing with more passion than the rest of his teammates combined. Afterward, Carmouche blamed himself for the Tigers’ lackadaisical start.
“The guys were looking at me, and I didn’t bring the intensity from the jump,” he said. “We were like, what’s wrong? We felt like we were dead.”
Carmouche has been like everybody else this season, at times unhappy when he’s gotten pulled, feeling like he deserved more shots or playing time. But Thursday, he learned his lesson.
If the rest of the Tigers don’t follow suit, this won’t be the last time they’ll have to find a way to avoid embarrassment.