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November 12, 2012Coach Josh Pastner hopes his Memphis Tigers finally figure out how to finish what they start.
In the Top 25 for a third straight preseason, the 17th-ranked Tigers, who embark on their farewell tour through Conference USA as the favorite to win the league again, open play Monday night against North Florida.
Pastner now hopes the preseason accolades translate into surpassing two hurdles - beating a Top 25 team finally and winning an NCAA tournament game, because getting there is not enough at Memphis. Fans remind Pastner of both shortcomings regularly since the Tigers' 61-54 loss to Saint Louis in the last NCAA tournament.
"We've technically won some Top 25 games. They just haven't been Top 25 at the time," Pastner said. "We've beaten a team, but maybe at that time, they weren't Top 25.
"I get it," Pastner said of the fans' frustrations. "We've got to win some of these early season games. We're going to have opportunities, and we've got to do our job."
The promise this new season is complete with a returning core of experienced players.
The Tigers do not have Will Barton, last season's leading scorer averaging 18.0 points. He left early for the NBA and was taken by the Portland Trail Blazers in the second round with the 40th overall pick.
Otherwise, Memphis returns key contributors from a team that finished 26-9, winning the conference regular season title and the C-USA tournament.
The inside-out pairing of point guard Joe Jackson and forward Tarik Black are both entering their third seasons. Guards Chris Crawford and Antonio Barton also are juniors. Pastner also has sophomore Adonis Thomas, who lost significant time last season with an ankle injury, and the coach is looking to him for more leadership.
Jackson averaged 11.0 points and 3.9 assists last season, while Black managed 10.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in earning conference all-defensive team honors. Crawford led the Tigers in 3-point field goals with 51.
Memphis also boasts a formidable pair of newcomers with junior college transfer Geron Johnson and freshman Shaq Goodwin. Johnson, however, has been suspended for the first three games by the NCAA for receiving extra benefits prior to enrolling at Memphis.
"Our core every year in college has been young guys," Black said. "We've had a couple of older guys to rely on, but this year, most of us are (more experienced). We have a couple of young freshmen we've added in, but coach can have a little more trust in us. It's going to be an easier game flow for us."
Memphis, which has dominated Conference USA, will move to the Big East next season. The Tigers expect that to mean an even rougher road through C-USA this season.
"We are going to have to earn every win especially this being the final year of Conference USA," Pastner said. "We're getting everyone's best shot, even more than ever, so we are going to have to be ready to go."
Pastner is more comfortable in the role he took when John Calipari bolted for Kentucky. He says at times he looks back to his first years coaching and thinks those Tigers won in spite of his inexperience.
He also realizes that it's time to start delivering on those preseason promises. Memphis' non-conference slate includes VCU and either No. 8 Duke or Minnesota in a tournament in the Bahamas with a visit from No. 2 Louisville on Dec. 15. The Tigers also make a trip across the state to play at Tennessee on Jan. 4 and to Xavier on Feb. 26.
"Now we have to take it to the next step," Pastner said.
"I'm at ease and at peace knowing we've got our guys in place, and now we've got to do the job on the floor. We've got to win some marquee games and trying to keep advancing in the tournament."
Before looking too far down the road, Memphis will start things off with its first meeting with North Florida.
The Ospreys opened Saturday, defeating NAIA school Edward Waters 79-65. Senior Parker Smith, who averaged a team-high 14.5 points for last season's 16-16 team, scored 22 and made six 3-pointers. Will Wilson matched a school record with 12 assists and North Florida shot 50.0 percent.
"There's enough guys around that can score," coach Matthew Driscoll said.
It likely won't be as easy for the Ospreys against Memphis. Since its first Division I season in 2005-06, North Florida has lost all 12 of its games against ranked teams by an average of 33.3 points.