For South Carolina State head coach Murray Gavin, his team’s struggles against the Memphis Tigers boiled down to one word – one name, really.
“Wiseman,” Gavin said. “The size, athleticism and the ability to hit free throws even when he gets fouled. He is everything everyone anticipated. We just did not have anyone to compete with his athleticism.”
The Tigers rolled to a 97-64 win over the Bulldogs in the season opener for both teams at FedExForum. In his collegiate debut, James Wiseman was all he was advertised to be. He did not experience the first game anxiety that the rest of the freshman class had in their first exhibition game. Wiseman finished the game with 28 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots.
For 16 minutes, the Bulldogs hung tough with the Tigers, but ultimately, the inside play and depth of the Tigers was just too much for South Carolina State. The Tigers outscored the Bulldogs 60-18 in the paint. The Bulldogs were led by Ian Kinard (13 points) and Jahmari Etienne (11 points). Each player made three three-pointers.
Precious Achiuwa was the only other Tiger in double figures with 14 points and eight rebounds. D.J. Jeffries played the most consistent basketball and had a great all-around game. Jeffries came off the bench to give the second unit a little more power and stuffed the stat box with five points, four assists, four rebounds and four blocks.
It was the first time the full complement of the No. 1 recruiting class played in a game together. Injury kept Wiseman out of the Bahamas trip and the first two exhibition games. The lack of Wiseman not playing a public game led to all types of wild speculation that maybe he would not play this season.
But the 7-foot phenom some believe could be the top pick in the NBA draft put all that to rest with one of the better games a freshman has had in a debut. The crowd gasped early in the first half when Wiseman went up for a dunk and landed awkwardly.
“I was up in the air and I thought, oh my God what should I do?” Wiseman said of the moment.
Asked what was going through his mind when Wiseman went down, Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway simply answered, “Get up!”
Fortunately, Wiseman popped right up and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And then of course, he went on to dominate the game.
Wiseman’s teammates have been saying that once Wiseman returns, many of the issues they’ve struggled with would be solved. They were not wrong. The Tigers looked like a totally different team than the one that played the two exhibition games.
Wiseman checks all the boxes of the concerns Hardaway had coming into the season: Offensive rebounding. Getting outrebounded. Not boxing out on the glass. Turnovers.
“James cleans up a lot of things we were doing wrong,” said Alex Lomax, who is reunited with his high school teammate from East High School.
“I’m very proud of this team,” Hardaway said. “We may have the youngest team in the nation. We were stagnant at first, but once we hit our stride, it became a beautiful night for many reasons.”
With so many positives from the game, where does Hardaway see room for improvement?
“We are young and have to play against ourselves,” he said. “You build on (the win) by sharing the basketball. Don’t let any outside noise come in. That is the biggest thing. Basketball-wise we still have a lot of to do – with more rebounding, trying to get more assists and more blocks.”
The Tigers will play their second game on Friday, Nov. 8 when they take on the University of Illinois-Chicago. Tipoff is a 6 p.m. at FedExForum. The game is the first of three games in the Barclays Center Classic. The first two will be played at FedExForum with the third on Thanksgiving Day at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, where the Tigers take on North Carolina State.