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October 9, 2012
When the University of Memphis lost assistant coach Jack Murphy to Northern Arizona on April 12, 2012, Josh Pastner once again found himself in the now-familiar position of having to search for an assistant coach.
Murphy had been the only holdover from Pastner's original staff when he took the Memphis job in 2009, as former assistants Willis Wilson (Texas A&M-Corpus Christi head coach) and Glynn Cyprien (Texas A&M associate head coach) had already moved on.
Additionally, Pastner had just hired Jimmy Williams in December of 2012 to replace Wilson's temporary replacement, Luke Walton, who returned to the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers after the NBA lockout ended. He ended the 2011-'12 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Pastner took his normal methodical approach and on May 27, 2012 announced the hiring of former Marquette assistant Aki Collins. And with the Tigers smack in the middle of recruiting season, Collins hit the ground running.
He was instrumental in the recruitment of Melrose combo guard Markel Crawford as well as Florida point guard RaShawn Powell. And his fingerprints are on the commitment of uber stud Kuran Iverson, too.
Now, it's time to switch gears and concentrate on getting the 2012-'13 vintage of the Memphis Tigers in peak working condition. Collins certainly appears to be up to the challenge, and he thinks this talented team is up for it, as well.
"I think obviously we've got a lot of talent," he observed. "They've had a lot of success within Conference USA, winning the conference tournament the last couple of years, Joe (Jackson) being named the tournament MVP both of those years. There's no question that it's a talented group."
But it's going to take more than just talent for this team to meet their ultimate goals.
"The thing that they have to understand is that everything they do every single day, whether it be on the court or off the court, is a reflection of the program," Collins said candidly, "and it helps (or hurts) your opportunity for success. If you're not doing the things you're supposed to do every single day, you can't expect your reward in March. And I think that's what everybody's playing for.
"I think if you do it the right way, you give yourself an opportunity to have some success, and I think that's what (the players) are trying to learn right now."
Make no mistake about it; Collins truly believes that his team can be special. National championship special. But there is a lot of work to do before that dream can come to fruition.
"I think (a national championship) is reasonable, and it's possible," he observed." But there's so much more to it than just being a talented team.
"You have to be in sync, you have to play for one another, you have to play and be mentally strong, because you're gonna have some adverse situations that you'll have to overcome. When that adverse situation occurs if you splinter, then you're not gonna have the success that you desire."
This Tiger team has a tremendous advantage over the last two: experience.
"Growing up obviously helps," Collins said bluntly. "Going through those experiences, those kids understand what it takes; they've had some success but they've had some failures as well. So you just hope their maturity level kicks in and it allows them to get over the hump this year."
Many Tiger fans say that the team has not been tough enough during the Pastner era, and that the tough-minded Collins is just what the doctor ordered. Aki isn't prepared to comment on that subject just yet.
"I haven't had a chance to be around the guys as a group on the court, coaching them through 2 1/2 or 3 hour practices yet. So I think right now it's too early for me to speak on how tough these guys are, to be quite honest. I know that talent-wise we have enough talent to be successful. I know we're saying the right things. But in a week, we'll get after it and we'll start seeing what we are."
And while the entire city of Memphis seems to be thrilled that the Tigers are making the move to the Big East in 2013, Pastner and his staff realize that the last year in Conference USA will be fraught with peril. Even more than usual, the team with "Memphis" across their chests will get hit with the very best shot everyone in C-USA can muster. The Tigers, Collins says, cannot allow this to rattle them.
"(The players) have to understand that there's a target on our backs," he warned. "And I think that as a staff, we have to keep preaching that, because it's true. And if it's not true, then it doesn't matter. We have to have that mentality, just in case we reach a situation where things are not going our way for whatever reason.
"If our mentality is such that we understood what we were facing going in, we won't get frustrated by it, we won't start acting immature. We'll understand, 'Hey, it is what it is, we've talked about this, we've prepared for this moment, so let's just keep moving forward.'"