The Memphis Tigers were coming off a horrible loss to the Oklahoma State Cowboys on Tuesday night in Stillwater, TX. They came home to Memphis to regain their winning touch and silence critics who said it was going to be a long, frustrating season.
The home crowd didn't seem as loud as usual, no doubt because of a lingering hangover following the humbling loss on national television. The Tigers started off a little sluggish but got rolling late in the first half and never looked back in a 98-59 victory over visiting Nicholls State before an announced crowd of 15,528 Saturday afternoon at the FedEx Forum.
Austin Nichols scored the first two points for Memphis and the Tigers took off from there. Ball movement was crisp as Memphis roared out to an early 23-8 lead. Nichols was a bright spot for the Tigers with his aggressiveness in the paint, though he missed a couple of layups.
Nicholls State rallied, getting as close as seven (29-22) before the Tigers hit the afterburners and put the game out of reach with a 22-7 spurt to end the first half, staking the home team to a commanding 51-29 halftime advantage.
The full-court press for Memphis was finally working the way Josh Pastner no doubt envisioned it, forcing Nicholls State to turn the ball over 12 times in the first half. The Tigers also shot close to 80 percent from the free throw line (20-of-26, 76.9 percent). The only stat that wasn't impressive was their three-point shooting, with Memphis converting only two-of-10 from long range.
By halftime, Nichols and Joe Jackson were leading the way for Memphis with 13 points apiece as the Tigers shot 50 percent (15-30) from the field.
Coming out of halftime, Memphis continued to pour it on Nicholls State. In the second half, behind 55.2 percent shooting from the field and 45.8 percent from beyond the arc, Memphis led by as many as 45 points (94-49 and 96-51).
The Tiger defense frustrated Nicholls State for the entire game, forcing the Colonels to take bad shots and harassing them into 18 turnovers on the contest. They finished the game shooting 35.9 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from long range, and just 52.9 percent from the free throw line.
Not that Memphis shot free throws much better, ending the night at a meager 62 percent (31-of-50), clanking their freebies at a putrid 45.8 percent (11-24) after the intermission. The Tigers had players at each end of the free throw spectrum: Jackson was nearly perfect (14-of-15) while freshman Nick King was a painful 3-12 (25 percent), including 0-5 in the second half.
Nichols finished the night with a game-high 20 points while adding five rebounds, and four other Tigers scored in double figures. Jackson followed with 18 points, Michael Dixon pitched in 16, King finished with 12 and Chris Crawford added 11.
Jeremy Smith led Nicholls with 16 points and was the only Colonel in double figures. Shaq Goodwin had a game-high eight rebounds, while King and Geron Johnson chipped in with six apiece as Memphis dominated the glass, 48-34.
Even though Memphis got the win, Dixon feels that the team still has things improve on, but none more than free throw shooting.
"(We've) definitely got to do a better of job shooting free throws," he readily admitted. "I mean, 60 percent is not going win us the games that we need to win and want to win. I think as long as we stay the course and just keep getting better each and every day at practice and doing our job on and off the court, I think that we will be okay."
When it comes to free throw shooting, Memphis struggled mightily in the early going. Dixon thinks he knows why Memphis is not shooting free throws well right now.
"I think it's a concentration thing man," he explained. "It's a wide open, uncontested shot, that's the only way you can think about it. Nobody is guarding you. All you got to do is take your time, take a deep breath, bend your knees, get some arc on the ball and I think that you will be fine.
"People tend to think about it a little too much. It's really simple."
Coach Pastner was happy with the win on their home floor, but feels that his team has to play better on the defensive end of the basketball.
"We've got to do a better job of guarding the ball," Pastner asserted. "There (were) some good things. I liked that we had a plus-14 rebound margin. We had 22 assists on 31 made field goals. But we have to do a better job of guarding the basketball.
"I think the guys get a little hesitant because of the (hand checking) rules. In their mind, they are afraid. Just by a natural tendency when a guy drives, you just have a natural tendency to put your hand on him. So it's just something that we have to continue to work on."
The Tigers (2-1, 0-0) now look ahead to the Old Spice Classic next week, where the competition will be challenging, starting off with Siena next Thursday. Should the Tigers defeat the Saints, next up could be a matchup with the winner of LSU and Saint Joseph's.
A second victory would put the Tigers in the championship game, where they could end up playing Oklahoma State for the second time in less than two weeks. Should the Cowboys falter, however, the Tigers could face a test against Butler, Purdue or Washington State, none of which are pushovers.