Miami-Memphis: O'Neil's observations

MEMPHIS -- Hurricane Katrina delivered two blows to Charles Carmouche.

First, it sent him packing out of the city, looking for a place to live in his final year of high school.

Then it sent him packing again, looking for a place to finish his college career. The University of New Orleans, its budget decimated by the damage caused by Katrina, opted to drop from the Division I level last year, leaving its players with the dismal choice of staying and playing below what they had hoped, or leaving and starting over.

Carmouche, who wanted to stay and play in his city, instead left after two seasons, landing in Memphis.

Finally, the hurricane did him right.

Carmouche not only is on the Tigers’ roster, but he is starting and serving a vital role as a savvy floor leader.

And Carmouche’s calm in the presence of (ironically enough) the Hurricanes sealed a 72-68 victory for the Tigers.

Carmouche hit two free throws with just under a minute left, giving Memphis a lead it wouldn’t give up. He finished with 13 points, eight of them at the charity stripe, and played a vital 31 minutes.

While the rest of the Tigers grow into their talent, Carmouche’s steady hand will be key.

Before I head to Carbondale, here are a few other observations from this marathon of a game to start the Tip-Off Marathon:

-- If the Tigers are going to live up to their preseason expectations, they’re going to have to work the boards harder. Yes, they are small, but they’re going to have to learn how to play bigger to win. Miami outmuscled Memphis 51-31 on the boards, an absolute killer in a game when every single possession counted. And if the Tigers are going to keep jacking up 3s at will -- they tossed up 22 against the Hurricanes -- they better be willing to go chase down the long rebounds.

-- On the flip side, here’s the good news for Memphis: The Tigers defend with tenacity. They held a good 3-point shooting team to 3-of-19 from the arc, rarely giving Malcolm Grant, Durand Scott and Adrian Thomas a look without a hand in their faces. Thomas, one of the best from the arc in the ACC, was 0-for-4.

But the Tigers didn’t just defend the 3-point line; they defended everywhere. Miami shot only 33 percent for the game and coughed the ball up 18 times, the miscues leading to 20 points for the Tigers.

Equally good -- and a complete departure for a team wearing a Memphis uniform -- the Tigers shot 30-of-39 from the free throw line. For anyone who sat in San Antonio for the 2008 national championship game against Kansas (as I did), they get the significance of that.

-- Miami might be a good sleeper pick in the ACC. The Hurricanes’ backcourt of Scott and Grant is flat-out terrific. Tough and strong, both are a threat to score from anywhere. They combined for 38 points against Memphis, a one-two punch that was almost impossible to contain.

But the Canes are more than their backcourt. Overlooking how vital Reggie Johnson is to this team does the big man a disservice. He’s a wide body who commands the paint and pushes for position. And more, on a team that likes to launch from deep, his ability to keep the play alive with rebounds is huge. He dragged down 12 boards to go with 12 points against the Tigers.

-- Will Barton is still trying to find his way. The highly acclaimed Memphis freshman had just three points and played only 20 minutes. He’s been hobbled by an ankle injury, but also has been cleared to play. The Tigers need the Will Barton they recruited to win for the long term.

Fortunately for him, his rookie teammates are picking up his slack. Antonio Barton, the brother-to-be-named later in the recruiting package, had 10 points, and Joe Jackson, the pride of the city, shined with 17 points.