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Lacking frontcourt depth, Tigers turn to small ball

<p>Markel Crawford and his fellow guards will have to effective from three-point range for the four-around-one to be successful in 2016</p>
Markel Crawford and his fellow guards will have to effective from three-point range for the four-around-one to be successful in 2016

When star forward Austin Nichols made his shocking decision to transfer this summer the instant reaction was about how the team would miss his production on both ends of the floor. But there’s also another drastic side effect — the team is now nearly completely devoid of quality big men.

Forward Shaq Goodwin is entering his senior season and is arguably the best player on the Tigers roster, and highly sought-after recruit Dedric Lawson has high expectations in his freshman season. But while those two players should be bright spots for Memphis this year, there’s an overwhelming lack of depth at the forward positions.

Freshman Nick Marshall is the only other player on the team taller than 6’7”. Marshall was a four-star recruit out of high school according to most scouting services, but it’s at least slightly concerning that two of the team’s only three big men will be playing their first year of college basketball.

Freshman K.J. Lawson and senior Trahson Burrell could also see time at the power forward spot, but both are really more of wing players than traditional fours. The result of all of this is that outside of the starting lineup the Tigers are going to have to rely on small ball, guard heavy lineups that feature either four guards or three guards and Burrell or K.J. around one of Goodwin, Marshall or Dedric Lawson.

For most Tiger fans, this idea probably instantly brings back memories of the “four kings” lineup from the 2013-14 season that included senior guards Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr. The lineup was heavily hyped up leading into the season, but had mixed results due to a number of factors, but most noticeably how the team was getting killed in the rebounding battle and on defense due to the lack of size.

“The four guards was a media driven thing, some stuff media people would say without having any facts, because they were lazy — they didn’t want to do their homework,” Memphis head coach Josh Pastner recently said of the four-guard lineup from the 2013-14 season. “Rarely do we play four guards at one time. There might’ve been some small cases that we did, but most of the time we played three guards with two bigs.”

It certainly could be true that the four-guard lineup was media driven in the past. After all, the lineup didn’t start a single game in the 2013-14 season and was mostly used in certain situation or near the end of games. However, that smaller lineup was mostly used because of how talented the four guards were. This season, it’s probably going to have to be used out of necessity.

The play of the team’s guards was the biggest issue facing the Tigers a season ago. This year, the depth and overall talent on the perimeter should be bolstered from transfer Ricky Tarrant and other incoming freshmen, but it’s still going to be a far cry from the level of the guards in 2013-14 when the four-guard lineup was last used with any regularity.

Additionally, the typical benefit to four-guard lineups for most teams is that they’re able to dramatically space the floor due to having shooters all over the perimeter, and this allows the one big man in the paint to have tons of room to operate down low.

The most famous example of this was in the NBA when the Orlando Magic used the same four-around-one strategy to make it all the way to the NBA Finals in 2009. The offense was based around all-star center Dwight Howard drawing the defense’s attention near the basket, opening up space on the perimeter for the shooters. It worked the other way around too. Since the team had so many dangerous shooters including J.J. Redick, Rashard Lewis and current Memphis Grizzly Courtney Lee, when the ball was swung out to the perimeter the defense was drawn to it, leaving Howard open near the basket.

Obviously Shaq Goodwin isn’t as dominating of a presence as Dwight Howard and the Tigers’ shooters aren’t exactly as prolific as Courtney Lee and J.J. Redick, who are two of the most accurate three-point shooters in the NBA, but the basic idea is the same.

Goodwin should be able to command attention down low, the critical component to this is going to be whether or not the Tigers’ guards will be able to knock down the open shots. Three-point shooting was perhaps the biggest issue facing Memphis last season. Avery Woodson was the Tigers’ best shooter, knocking down nearly 38 percent of his long-range looks, and there’s no reason to think that won’t continue this season.

Outside of Woodson, however, there’s not much there. Kedren Johnson shot 35 percent from deep last season, but he’s currently battling through a shoulder injury that could require season-ending surgery if he elects to go down that route, so it’s unknown if he’ll even play this season, and if he does it’s anybody’s guess as to how long he’ll be able to play or how effective he can be. No other returning Tiger shot better than 30 percent from three.

According to Pastner, the early results from practice have been positive regarding the lineup, and it could have a positive impact on the shooting numbers.

“The spacing (from the four-around-one lineup) will allow us to be more efficient from three-point range, because some of our guys need a little more time and are slower with their releases, but they are good shooters when they have time and the space will allow us to penetrate more downhill for the kickout and the one more to give us more spacing,” Pastner said. “When you are three around two you don’t have as much spacing because you have a big guy in the high post area at all times, which can clog the spacing up. So I think the spacing will be different and better for us with our shooting.”

The four-around-one strategy is somewhat of a risk. For it to work it’s going to require the one forward to be on the same page as the perimeter players. The key component for this to work is the inside-out passing, and that dynamic doesn’t work if the big man takes the entry pass and hoists up a hook shot over a double team instead of finding the open player on the wing.

The Tigers are also inevitably going to be conceding a few rebounds and will struggle at times on the defensive side of the ball due to the size disadvantage. That being said, the odds are stacked against Memphis this season. The roster is the weakest it’s been in years, and the overall interest in Tiger basketball is at a low not seen in nearly two decades. Pastner is going to have to get creative to find something that works, and successfully utilizing a four-around-one lineup could be exactly what it takes to turn a potentially disastrous season into a successful one.

Markel Crawford and his fellow guards will have to effective from three-point range for the four-around-one to be successful in 2016

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