How talented is Memphis?
In a 99-97 double-overtime win over Tennessee on Tuesday in the Maui Invitational, Memphis coach Josh Pastner played four bench players -- Antonio Barton, Chris Crawford, Stan Simpson and Adonis Thomas -- for a combined 127 minutes. Starting point guards Joe Jackson and Charles Carmouche played just 19 and 15 minutes, respectively, and they were rarely seen in crunch time.
Is Pastner still settling on a rotation? Did Jackson and Carmouche take a temporary trip to the doghouse? What gives?
Don't overthink it. With all this talent -- particularly the continued emergence of Barton, who scored 21 points and shot 4-of-5 from beyond the 3-point arc against Tennessee -- Pastner wants to make sure he has the hot hands on the floor.
"I think I have a really good feel on the rotation," Pastner said by phone Tuesday afternoon. "It's more about the flow of how the game is going. Versus Belmont, Joe was so good. Against Michigan, he did some really good things. But today Antonio really played well, so it's hard to take him out of the game, you know?"
Pastner liked much of what he saw in Memphis' nail-biter of a win against its in-state rival, and he said his team is making progress on his main points of emphasis to begin the season. Those points dovetail with the qualities that held back the Tigers last season. (If anyone recognizes what held back the Tigers last season, it's their coach.) Pastner wants to see his players take better care of the ball, rebound on both ends of the floor, and focus on scoring and defending the 3.
Three games in, Pastner's review is mixed. He likes his team's careful approach to possessions; the Tigers entered Tuesday's game with the lowest turnover rate in the country, 11.6 percent, and Memphis coughed up the ball just 12 times in 50 minutes of basketball against Tennessee. Memphis' shooting has improved, although the Tigers took a step back in their first-round loss to Michigan. (They shot 4-for-20 from 3 against the Wolverines and, as Pastner put it, "took an L.") Memphis has been better defensively against the 3-point shot, too. But rebounding is another story.
"We're just getting our butts kicked on the glass," he said. "That's something that -- you know, maybe we've been in foul trouble with our big guys -- but guard rebounding has to come in there at some point, it's got to include the guards and we've just got to do so much better on the glass."
The foul trouble he's referring to is that of Tarik Black, who played just 13 minutes Tuesday. Black is easily UM's best forward, but he's averaging a mere 16.5 minutes per game in 2011-12 because he can't seem to keep himself from hacking opposing forwards on the low block. Fortunately, Pastner can go to freshman Thomas when Black is unable to stay on the floor, but what Thomas provides in offensive prowess, Memphis loses in low-post girth.
"We're a better team with him on the floor," Pastner said. "We've got to keep him on the floor. ... One of the terminologies I use is we've got to protect his first foul. Your first foul is just as important as your fourth foul, and you've got to keep away from silly fouls."
Despite those struggles -- Black's foul trouble, team rebounding and overall defensive woes -- Pastner is encouraged by his team's early play. More than that, he's happy his club has played so many quality opponents so early in the season.
"You can't say we haven't been tested," he said. "Our first four games, no one can say we schedule lightly.
"We have a lot of room to improve here still. It's a long season. But I do think we know this about our team: We've got a lot of guys that can play multiple positions. We're a really fast team. And we're still relatively young."