The Triumph of Will
Despite a rocky road, the Memphis Tigers are going dancing.
by Stephanie Mejia / @Smejia_
They are the Conference USA regular season champions and have the conference Player of the Year. Three Tigers earned All Conference honors and Coach Pastner’s 74 wins, which is the most by any Memphis coach in their first three years. They are the back-to-back Conference USA Tournament Champions (26-8) and are heading to the big dance.
Sounds good on paper, but the road hasn’t been smooth.
Coming into the season, the Memphis Tigers were ranked in the top 15 by the AP & Coaches polls. The Tigers were returning three seniors, a dominant, athletic sophomore class and a McDonald’s All-American freshman. Expectations were high, and the Tigers seemed ready to produce.
They had an impressive out of conference schedule, but fell short of defeating ranked opponents. The undeniable talent did not fully translate on the court early on as they lacked cohesiveness, unity and any unwavering will. After their loss to Georgetown in December, the Tigers were 6-5, a record definitely not worthy of a top 15-ranked preseason team.
“We were disappointed,” said the Tigers’ sensational sophomore Will Barton, who was named the Conference USA Player of the Year. “We had a team meeting to allow everybody to let everything out. And from there on, we never looked back.”
After the loss to Georgetown and subsequent team meeting, the Tigers bounced back, despite a string of injury setbacks.
Senior Charles Carmouche was lost for the season due to knee tendonitis, along with Adonis Thomas, who had ankle surgery. Despite the loss of two key players, the Tigers maintained their will to prosper.
And there goes that Will again. Barton is looked to as the leader of the team. It’s his duty to lead by example, set the tone and establish the character of what a Memphis Tiger embodies.
“It was a setback, but we overcame it as a team,” said Barton.
With each game, Memphis steadily improved. Yet they weren’t immediately recognized on the national stage. Within conference play, their two road losses too Central Florida and Southern Miss didn’t further their cause with the national polls, but they remained within reach of the conference title while still in the process of filling in the gaps and unifying as a team.
In mid-February, UTEP had not won a single road game and were visiting the Fed Ex Forum. What was taken for granted as an easy victory for Memphis ended in the third conference loss.
The regular season Conference USA title was slipping away. The will they’d previously displayed to distance themselves from their early stumbles was nowhere to be found.”
“It was a bad day at the office for us,” said Tigers Head Coach Josh Pastner, referring to his team’s disappointing loss to UTEP. “We understood that we needed to do things differently. I didn’t let [the players] wear anything with Memphis on it during practice and took the names off their jerseys. They had to earn that right back. I took away hot meals and replaced them with cold sandwiches and chips.”
Barton, an early season Wooden and Naismith award candidate, was seeing his own potential accolades become distant. No longer were the Tigers praised on the national level. No longer were his performances being viewed prominently, along with other National Player of the Year candidates.
In hindsight, Barton could have lost his own will to overcome. But innately, his competitive nature would never allow it. It’s no coincidence that has given birth name is Will. He knew the UTEP loss wasn’t about Will the individual. It was about finding the Memphis Tigers’ collective will to overcome.
As the focal point of the team, he knew had to step up, re-focus and gather his teammates to bounce back.
“It was a disappointing loss because we had been playing very well,” said Barton of the UTEP defeat. “By Coach taking the names off our jerseys, it showed us that we had to appreciate the value of being a Memphis Tiger and we needed to play for Memphis, not ourselves. As a leader, I had to lead by example and make sure I set the tone for practice and games.”
The Tigers won their last four games in convincing fashion, with margins of 22, 20, 29 and 12 points, respectively as Tarik Black, Chris Crawford, Wesley Witherspoon and Joe Jackson played some of their best basketball of the season. With the final win over Tulsa, they clinched the Conference USA title. Through the tests and hardships of the regular season, they’ve become a true team and have done so partly through Barton’s leadership.
Will never lost the will to lead his team. Every setback resulted in a major comeback.
“Will has really matured and improved,” said Pastner. “He has had a great sophomore season in Tiger history, and he has done it by playing hard with a great motor and energy. He is a good leader on the team, which is a direct result of his maturity.”
At 6-6 and a slim 175 pounds, Barton finished the season averaging 18.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists per game, with total 11 double-doubles. He eclipsed the 1,000 point plateau as a sophomore and he’s currently 24 points shy of surpassing Elliot Perry as Memphis’ top sophomore scorer.
Barton is displaying the potential that many saw when he was considered a top recruit as a McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American coming out of high school. And yet, due to the team’s less than stellar regular season, he remains under-appreciated on the national level by most.
There will be no Naismith or Wooden Award for him this year. But the injury setbacks and tough losses may have ultimately created an environment for the players to mature as individuals and, in a greater sense, as a team.
The NCAA Tournament is here and the sheer beauty of it is that once invited, you’ve got the chance to dance for a while. For Memphis, despite the bumps in the road, the opportunity to prove themselves is here for the taking.
And every time they step on the court from here on out, they have an opportunity to display the triumph of their own Will and create a satisfying ending to what still could be a phenomenal season.