“…If you want to feel good about the Tubby Smith era, just ask one of his players what they think of the new guy.”
It was just five-and-a-half months ago when Geoff Calkins of the Commercial Appeal wrote those words. Smith, he of multiple coach of the year awards, conference titles, and a national championship with Kentucky, had just arrived from Texas Tech with the goal of taking a mediocre Memphis Tigers basketball program and returning it to the glory days of a decade earlier.
Written following the team’s media day for the 2016-2017 season, it was full of hope and promise and excitement and all of the things you’d expect to hear in the honeymoon phase. Besides, we know how much everyone likes to hope their team’s new coach is a home run hire.
Five-and-a-half months later, the honeymoon phase isn’t just over for Tubby. If things keep up the way they’ve been going, he and Memphis might already be en route to an annulment.
The Tigers finished the season 19-13, which to be fair was a slight improvement from the previous year’s 19-15 record. But how they got there, with a team as talented as this one, is how Smith has ended up watching six players leave the program after just one season.
Redshirt junior Markel Crawford, the team’s second-leading scorer in 2016-2017, just announced that he’ll play elsewhere next season. To give you an idea of how much he must have soured on the idea of sticking around, see what Crawford said back in October.
“It feels different, more of a family feel. It always will feel different when you have a coach of Tubby’s caliber. There’s so much to learn from him. We’re just soaking up that knowledge. A great guy, a great personality. No matter what is coming out of his mouth, it’s always knowledge.”
Apparently, all of that knowledge he soaked up didn’t make him feel all that great in the end.
Crawford: "I’m just looking for a coach that can be trusted and a university that can go far in the NCAA Tournament."
— Geoff Calkins (@geoff_calkins) April 10, 2017
Also heading out the door is sophomore guard Craig Randall, the team’s leading bench scorer last season, who is now on his way to Duquesne. Again, back in October it was nothing but praise for the new coach.
“The intensity level is different. Everything is attention to detail. He’s very detailed. If you don’t do something right, he’ll stop practice until we get it right. He’ll teach us and teach us and teach us. Practice is more of a learning lesson. It’s like class. He’s a real good teacher and you can tell why he’s going to be a Hall of Fame coach.”
Sitting here in April with hindsight, there’s a different way to reach a lot of those sentiments and wonder if Randall was putting some spin on that “intensity level.”
Joining them in the transfer pool are graduate student Chad Rykhoek, freshman guard Keon Clergeot, and brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson, the latter duo having just committed to play for Kansas instead. Their father, Keelon Lawson, who was Smith’s director of player personnel last season (but is no longer), didn’t mince words in an interview explaining why they left.
“The reason we are leaving, I don’t think there’s anything Dedric can do, as far as the University of Memphis, as far as achieving his personal goals. Now, imagine, you go to a Power Five conference somewhere, where they won’t double-team you, you have guys on the team that are just as better as you, if you go there and do half the things you did at Memphis, it would be great.”
K.J.’s initial tweet (now deleted) on the matter was a bit more succinct.
two middle fingers. pic.twitter.com/0fLUpFFg9N
— nate kotisso (@natekotisso) April 5, 2017
Finally, there’s Calkins, who has never been one to hold back when criticizing Memphis basketball coaches. It’s easy to look back at that October piece, full of optimism and hope and wishful thinking, and wonder whether or not the columnist was trying too hard to carry so much water for the new guy. To his credit, Calkins basically admits as much now.
Was I dubious about the Smith hire when it was announced? I was. But I wrote nice things from the opening press conference, nice things from the first practice, nice things from the first few games. But after a while, that got to be harder and harder, watching events unfold. The guy simply had no interest in promoting the program. He assembled a mediocre cast of recruits. Now he’s chased away the one member of his staff who has actually delivered high-level prospects. At the moment, what is there to praise?
Calkins even went as far as to wonder aloud if Smith was just simply the wrong guy for the job all along.
It’s not just that Memphis lost two players. It’s that Memphis might have hired the wrong coach.
Five-and-a-half months. That’s how long it’s taken Tubby Smith to lose the core of his basketball team, the goodwill of the local scribe, and presumably favor of his fanbase. It’s no longer a question of whether or not the honeymoon phase is over. It’s a question of how soon until the divorce is finalized.