*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered â€“ the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks. After we broke down Florida this morning, we’ll keep this going with No. 9-ranked Memphis (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
The Tigers are a team where fans can see progress on a game-by-game basis, an exciting â€” and sometimes frustrating â€” prospect for any fan of hoops development. Wunderkind coach Josh Pastner now gets to prove if the label fits with his young collection of talent ready to come into its own. He comes into his third season, following a berth in the NCAA Tournament (where they came within a bucket of upsetting Arizona), with a team where nine players are underclassmen but nearly all of whom played extensive minutes last season. Getting better starts with USA U19 team members Joe Jackson and Will Barton, both sophomores getting national attention already.
A C-USA Tournament title last season and NCAA bid exceeded expectations, but the training wheels must come off now. Yet to be seen is if Memphis can find a cruise control, or if it will be more stop-and-go again.
Third-year head coach Josh Pastner is an emerging recruiting savant building on the coaching foundation he started under Lute Olson at Arizona. The athletes he brings to Memphis still pass the eye test that Calipari‘s teams aced, and their speed brought them near the top nationally in steals at 8.5 per game. Wooden Award watch list selections Will Barton and Joe Jackson are guards who ran the show as freshmen and are joined by Tarik Black, a 6-8 homegrown sophomore forward. Though the Tigers are small â€” forward Wesley Witherspoon is the biggest in the rotation at 6-9, and improved to 4.6 rebounds in his last 20 games but certainly doesn’t prefer to stay in the post â€” they will use their speed to play fast. Athleticism isn’t the problem at Memphis, it’s discipline with the ball.
With fundamentals, Memphis doesn’t come to mind as much as say, Duke, but you have to like all-around talent Chris Crawford, a sophomore guard. He had an up-and-down freshman season trying to be an outside deep threat while also taking opponents’ best players on the other end. Pastner has been pleased with how serious he’s taken the game in the offseason and his personal maturity. If he takes the lead on defense it can help shore up the Tigers’ D, which allowed 68 points per game last year – second-worst in C-USA – and barely (+0.8) outrebounded its opponents. While their steal numbers was gaudy, they were undercut by careless ball control, turning it over nearly twice as many times (15.4) as they stole it.
What’s not to like? They have an early-season crucible of a schedule that should form the team’s core, returning leadership in Barton and Jackson and a set of assistants who can counsel a young and talented team. Damon Stoudamire and Luke Walton are on Memphis’ bench this season and were parts of talented Arizona teams that, like Memphis, navigated star-power heavy lineups, fraught with potential ego problems, to plenty of victories.
Adonis Thomas, the 6-6 Memphis native and McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic competitor, will take time to jell as any freshman should be expected to, especially on a young team that returns five starters. But he comes in under high expectations, already on the Wayman Tisdale Award watch list for the nation’s top freshman at a school known for fast freshman beginnings (think Derrick Rose of course, but Tyreke Evans won the Tisdale award for best freshman in 2009). If Thomas can’t find his shot early, look for him to contribute on the boards, where he averaged 12 per game as a senior in high school.
How’s this for an opening act: At the Maui Invitational on Nov. 21-23, at Louisville on Dec. 17, at Georgetown on Dec. 22 and hosting Tennessee on Jan. 4. Yes, Memphis has always scheduled hard in the preseason to make up for a lacking C-USA schedule, but Pastner will see very early if his team that returns five starters heeded last year’s lessons. With Paster in his third season and emerging stars Barton, Jackson and possibly Thomas too, look for the momentum the coach tried to create the last two years to finally begin.
Will Memphis overachieve this year or are they just not ready to become big time again?
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