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March 8, 2011
This article is written before the Memphis Tigers' basketball season is over.
Yes, it could conceivably get better, but as of now, they have fumbled their way into the Conference USA tournament, and haven't looked too good for the past month. The three-pointers aren't falling, the turnovers are piling up, and the supposed leaders of the team are sulking after made baskets.
That doesn't normally equate to a first place conference team.
No, this article is written as an early reflection on the Tiger season that we have all seen so far. Or perhaps the season that we have all wished we hadn't seen.
Either way, the season hasn't gone the way most planned that it would. There, that's the one thing we can all agree on: the season didn't live up to the fans' expectations.
But, looking back, were the expectations too high?
Memphis was ranked as a consensus top 20 team in the preseason, and that was largely based on the team's top three recruiting class. With guys on the wings like Chris Crawford, the Barton Brothers, and Jelan Kendrick, and a helluva point guard in Joe Jackson, plus two bruisers in the paint that have announcers questioning spellcheck in Tarik Black and Hippolyte Tsafack, Memphis gained depth that it sorely lacked last year when they went only as far as seven-deep.
Combine the precocious freshmen with Wesley Witherspoon, Angel Garcia, and Will Coleman--all talented upperclassmen--and you had a team that could push for a Sweet Sixteen, right?
We now know that we had that all wrong.
Two players left before Memphis even played seven games. Jelan Kendrick was kicked off the team for being a huge distraction. Simply put, he didn't fit with what Coach Josh Pastner was trying to mold his team into. So Jelan transferred to Ole Miss.
Angel Garcia, unhappy with both his playing time and his role on the team, signed a pro contract to play in Spain. For those counting at home, that's three players in Coach Pastner's brief tenure at Memphis that have either left the team or been encouraged to leave (including Roburt Sallie this past summer).
So again, Memphis lacked depth, especially in the frontcourt.
But Will Coleman improved so much last year! Averaging close to a double-double a night would be easy as cake this season, right?
Once again, wrong. Will, for all of his power, charisma, likeability and brute strength, couldn't consistently grab six rebounds a night. What does that equal? Six minutes on Senior Night.
And don't even get me started on 'Spoon.
He has all the talent in the world, versatility, and experience, but he's done one thing consistently during his time at Memphis and that's get off against weaker teams. Defense and concentration and effort weren't on his priority list, and it's quite obvious if you really watch him play.
He was supposed to be a team leader. Instead, he missed 12 games due to a suspension and a torn meniscus, and he slept-walked his way through just as many games as he missed. We love you Wes, but the effort just wasn't there.
Another sign that the 'Spoon wasn't sorely missed is that the Tigers actually played better while he was out of the lineup. DJ Stephens, the life and soul of the team during brutal stretches of almost every game, received more minutes, and he made the most of them.
He may not have the greatest skill-set, but when the Tigers needed a clutch rebound, an energizing dunk, or a key swat after an awful defensive set, he got it. And he did it with enough force and vigor that the team (not to mention the crowd) would wake up for a bit.
Newcomers, you're next.
The same guys that were expected to be the foundation and future of Coach Pastner's program ended up being the present and saviors of the season. The Tigers wouldn't be anywhere near the NCAA bubble had it not been for the Tiger Cubs.
Antonio Barton hit the majority of the big shots in the final minutes that helped catapult the Tigers to 22 wins (so far). Tarik Black took over down low when his post brethren couldn't or wouldn't box out or scrap for a rebound. Will Barton leads the team in scoring.
Yet, through all of the accolades, a realistic appraisal of the situation is that they were a bit overhyped and overrated before they ever played a game. After signing the class, Tiger fans were contemplating starting and backup lineups, going over in their head who would do what and who would take the important shots and who would be the go-to guy.
31 games into the season and the players (and even coaches, it would seem) still don't know the answers to those questions.
But, that's to be expected when your top players are freshmen and an upperclassman newcomer (junior Charles Carmouche). Perhaps Joe Jackson said it best recently:
"You know, usually on a team the juniors and seniors, those are, like, the leaders. They're not the leaders on this team. So what am I gonna do, look to another freshman? I can't do it."
Every team in the top 25 has young players, but they also have older guys who lead the team on court because they've been there before. The Tigers didn't have that leadership this year.
Question: When's the last time you remember a freshman being a captain of a successful major college team? Ohio State with Greg Oden and Michigan with the Fab Five come to mind, but that's it, and those teams were led by freshmen who would've been picked by the NBA straight out of high school.
The Tigers, in all fairness, don't appear to have an uber-talented freshman.
The Tigers have six freshmen, only five of whom played meaningful minutes, and, get this, they played like freshmen. Shocking, I know, but when they were good, they were jaw-dropping. When they were bad. . .
College basketball fans, and Memphis fans in particular, are used to freshmen who come in and dominate right away. But news flash: even Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans struggled until the second half of the season, but at least they had upperclassmen who could take over games and lead.
Hard-workin' Joe and Willy B don't have that luxury, otherwise, perhaps they'd be playing like All-Americans right now. As it is, they're still playing like freshmen. Is that so difficult to understand?
There's an adage that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores. There's another that states that the biggest leap a player will make is between their freshmen and sophomore years. Obviously, these talented freshmen will get better with another year in the system and an added year of being relied on so much.
No one ever doubted their talent; I'm certainly not doubting it now. There's plenty of talent there, but it's young. Purdue had three freshmen by the names of E'Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson, and Robbie Hummel in 2007. They went 25-9 in their first year, and they followed that up with a 27-10 record their second year with an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen. Based on what I think this team can do next year, that's almost the same path Memphis fans can expect here.
And for those fans clamoring about what is wrong about Joe Jackson, this part is for you. In high school, Joe was a scoring guard. Rarely was he called upon to set up an offense to get a guy an open look. At Memphis, however, that's exactly what he's being asked to do.
So of course there would be the ups and downs to go with the growing pains that come with every freshman!
Let's use a comparable player and team again.
Louisville's Peyton Siva, also a scoring guard in high school, had issues his first year as a Cardinal. He averaged 3.9 points per game, had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.22:1, and he was incessantly yelled at by Coach Pitino. He grew up his second year, though.
As of today, Siva is averaging 9.9 ppg, has an A/T ratio of 1.75:1, and he's still being yelled at by Coach Pitino (but let's be honest, Coach P never stops yelling).Likewise, Louisville finished the regular season 20-13 his freshman year, and they're 23-7 this year in arguably the toughest conference in the land.
Joe is averaging nine ppg, 3 assists per game, and has an A/T ratio of .92:1. Those numbers will only improve in his sophomore campaign, and as Siva's improvement suggests, Memphis' wins will rise as well.
Look at who leads Memphis in four key categories. Tarik Black leads Memphis in rebounds and blocks per game, while Will Barton sits alone in scoring, and surprisingly, Chris Crawford has more assists and a better A/T ratio than Joe Jackson.
What's all of this mean? The best is yet to come, really. Trials and tribulations only make a man, or a team, stronger. Adding a very tough, talented and over-powering recruit like Adonis Thomas will help a lot, too, next season.
But that's not to suggest that this year is an utter failure. Despite sleeping through the final month of the season, Memphis is still on the NCAA tourney bubble. They have an RPI of 38 despite their best non-conference wins coming at the expense of Miami and Gonzaga. Of course, they have ugly losses that are inexcusable. Memphis should never lose to ECU, SMU, or Rice.
But they did, so it's time to just get over it.
It's easy to forget they swept UAB (RPI of 28), Southern Miss (53) and UCF (60). They won AT Gonzaga, a feat that is kind of tough, you know. Against the top 100 RPI, Memphis is 9-6. And, C-USA is the best non-Big 6 conference in the country, RPI-wise. One win in the conference tournament and whatever postseason tournament the Tigers will play in gives them 24 wins, the same amount they had last year.
Last year's team, one might say, was filled with castoffs and holdovers; but they were upperclassman castoffs and holdovers, and not to mention, they weren't Pastner's players. This team is comprised of Pastner's players save for Will Coleman and Wesley Witherspoon.
Notice how those two are the same ones who plagued the team at critical points in the season and in games?
There are those who want to blame, not to mention fire, Josh Pastner for the disappointing season.
Let's not remember that he inherited a team that Coach Calipari simply didn't want, and let's also not remember that Memphis was woefully thin last season on the way to a 24-10 debut for the young chap.
Let's not remember that before he ever coached a game he secured a top 3 recruiting class that would just so happen become major contributors in his second year.
Let's not remember that the only other head coaching experience he has is on the AAU level.
Let's not remember that he's the seventh youngest head coach in college basketball.
Let's not remember that so far he has the fourth highest winning percentage in Tiger basketball history.
Let's not remember that he's already 10th on the all-time wins list, and he's had the same amount of wins in his first two seasons as Larry Finch (46), he has more wins than Gene Bartow and Dana Kirk, and he's only two shy of Calipari's two season win total. Pretty good for a 33-year old who's had to dismiss a McDonald's All-American and two more players during those two years.
Calipari didn't make his first NCAA appearance until 2003 after taking over in 2000, and after making the tourney for two straight years, he went back to the NIT. Then, after having a roster of talented upperclassmen and underclassmen led by Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams, and Darius Washington, Jr, he went to the first of three straight Elite Eights.
It took Coach Cal six seasons to get past the second round of the NCAA's. But he didn't have as hot a seat as Pastner does now with the fans. And that's a shame because Pastner is a coach that embraces and actually recruits Memphis.
He genuinely cares about the city and the program, and he's already begun molding his team into what he wants it to be, and compared against Calipari's arrest and controversy-filled tenure at Memphis, it looks pretty damn clean now.
Gone are the guys who lived at the Plush Club, engaged in documented domestic disturbances, subjected fans to near-constant allegations of wrongdoing, and were getting arrested and/or suspended for drug-related incidents that helped paint a black eye on the program.
In their place are players who show affection and loyalty for being here. As I mentioned earlier, three players were booted off the team so far, yet none were booted off due to arrests or anything of that nature. No, they were bad for team chemistry. Wrap your head around that.
I've can only recall seeing one other coach do that lately, and that was when Tom Izzo kicked Korie Lucious off Michigan State.
So yeah, I think Pastner deserves major credit and respect for not only steering a program that was destined to be headed for the dumps but also for making the program the city's again. For continuing the tradition of top athletes, from the city of Memphis and beyond, wanting to become Tigers again. For having a vision and sticking to it, no matter the present consequences.
And about that word, "tradition." I use it loosely because it fits only in the sense that the City of Memphis has a "tradition" of wholeheartedly embracing University of Memphis basketball (when they're winning). But don't get that concept twisted.
This isn't North Carolina. This isn't Duke. This isn't Indiana. Hell, this isn't even Arkansas, where the Razorbacks reside in a legitimate power conference and have actually won a national title, in 1994 under Nolan Richardson.
This is Memphis, and folks, two title game appearances separated by 35 years don't make your coaching position one which dreams are made of. In fact, it rather qualifies your job as a stepping-stone type of position. So anybody talking about firing Josh Pastner--yeah, I'm talking to you--just who, exactly, do you propose to replace him with?
I don't think Roy Williams or Bill Self is available.
Josh Pastner is about the future. His foundation, his recruiting class that was meant to be the future of the program, was forced to become the present, and at times, the present looked really good. And at others, it looked terrible. Hey, they played their age.
But that's not to suggest that this year was a failure. If anything, it gave you a look into what this team can be, and eventually, will be.
Is that really so disappointing?
Taylor Davey is a Staff Writer and Recruiting Analyst for TigerSportsReport.com and may be followed on Twitter: @TDaveyTSR