University of Memphis sophomore guard Will Barton has never been one to lack for confidence.
But following the No. 10 Tigers' 97-81 season-opening win Tuesday against the scrappy Belmont Bruins in front of 16,294 at FedExForum, Barton was more deadpan than ever.
"I think we're one of the best teams in the country," said Barton, who led all scorers with 23 points. "That's all it proves right there, that we beat a great team, an experienced team. What else is there to say? We're just really good."
Donning the retro 1972-1973 Memphis uniforms, the Tigers (1-0) certainly looked the part of a Top 10 team against the Bruins (0-2), who took No. 6 Duke down to the wire last Friday.
Behind Barton and senior forward Wesley Witherspoon's 8-of-8, 22-point performance, the Tigers shot 58 percent while maintaining their identity as one of the quickest and most athletic teams in the nation.
"It's a great win for us," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "That's a good basketball team. To be able to beat a team that well-coached, that has good players in that system — that's a very, very good win for us. A really good quality win."
Although sophomore forward Tarik Black sat out most of the first half with two early fouls, the Tigers opened the game on an 11-4 run after senior guard Charles Carmouche nabbed a defensive rebound and connected with Witherspoon on an outlet pass for a layup.
With 7 minutes and 53 seconds left in the first half, Witherspoon nailed his second three of the day, which pushed the Tigers' lead to 29-21. The senior turned to the Memphis bench and screamed at the top of his lungs with approval — a sign that he's finally where he needs to be.
"It just felt like I was playing basketball," Witherspoon said. "Everybody knows I can play. It's been a long time since I've been this healthy, just being able to go out and do the things I know I can do on the floor. Tonight, I was fortunate enough to get it going and it was a great night for us."
The Tigers did a solid job of pressuring the Bruins, who at times looked uncomfortable with the high-speed flow of the game. Belmont committed a season-high 18 turnovers and shot just 38 percent for the game.
Belmont didn't score its first field goal until 13:27 in the first half and trailed Memphis, 46-39, at halftime.
"We're getting after it defensively," Pastner said. "You could see the speed. We cover a lot of ground because of our speed. We didn't want to get into where we were fully rotating in scramble mode. Belmont is a really good team because they spread the floor and they're smart. We wanted to stay as sound as we could. Our speed allowed us to do that."
The Bruins stayed within eight points the entire first half, though, as they were sent to the free-throw line 18 times, converting 15. They finished 23-of-29.
Pastner harped all preseason long about allowing three-point shooters open looks, and the Tigers kept Belmont's opportunities from deep at a minimum.
Because of Memphis' length and quickness, the Bruins were unable to get into a rhythm from three and finished 6-of-20 for the game.
"It was on us to find our man in transition and close out to the shooters," said freshman forward Adonis Thomas, who had 12 points. "They didn't make as many threes as they usually do, so that's one thing that slowed them down. We put them on the free-throw line a lot, and we missed a lot of free throws ourselves. The lead could've been even bigger."
For the Tigers, it was the first of many opportunities to showcase their depth and talent on a national stage. Perhaps no player in the country took more advantage of being in front of a nationwide audience than sophomore guard Joe Jackson.
Jackson had arguably one of the best games of his young career, scoring 20 points and handing out seven assists while demonstrating a much better understanding of his position and duties against a talented Belmont team.
"It's not a coming-of-age. It's just something I gotta do," Jackson said. "I'm a 6-foot undersized guard. I like to score, but I've got to facilitate and make sure other guys get good shots. That's all I try to focus on, if I'm not attacking or creating for myself, create for somebody else. Half the time, if you just give it up, it'll come back to you."
Jackson's ability to facilitate came in handy for the Tigers late in the second half, too.
After a Kerron Johnson jump shot pulled the Bruins to within seven with seven minutes and 20 seconds left, Pastner immediately called a 30-second timeout.
Out of the timeout, Jackson took an inbounds pass and zipped up the floor, only to find sophomore forward Tarik Black for an electrifying alley oop that ended a 10-0 Belmont run and gave the Tigers an ultimately insurmountable 75-66 lead.
"It was a real big play, because they were in that run and what better way to stop a run than an alley oop? It just picked up everybody's intensity," Black said. "It all starts with the point guard. If the point guard hits you for an alley, now his adrenaline's pumping. It was just a momentum-builder."