Today marks the beginning of practice for the Memphis Tigers men's basketball team. Expectations are high, as they usually are around the program, for head coach Josh Pastner and his squad's first year in the American Athletic Conference.
Not only do the Tigers have five seniors, including transfers Michael Dixon from Missouri and David Pellom from George Washington, they add the nation's third-ranked recruiting class compiled of six top-100 prospects.
The move to the AAC brings with it a much tougher schedule. Gone are the Marshall's, Tulane's, and Rice's of the world, and in their place come Cincinnati, Connecticut and Louisville. Fans had been groaning for better teams on the slate and they got just that. Excuses have run dry. It's time for the Tigers to go out on the court and live up to the lofty expectations.
"I think we can do a lot this year with this team, especially with our backcourt," freshman wingman Kuran Iverson said. "We got a lot of good guards and a lot of long wings, so we should be very good. It's not just our backcourt, it's our frontcourt too."
The backcourt is one of the top units in all of college basketball. Led by senior Joe Jackson, Memphis has an experienced and deep rotation that measures up with the best in the country. Jackson is the unquestioned leader of the team and the top returning scorer. He posted the best season of his career last year, averaging 13.6 points, 4.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game as a junior on his way to being named the Conference USA Player of the Year.
He surpassed the 1,000 career-point mark and, statistically, has a chance to go down as one of the greatest Tigers to ever play.
However, numbers like that wouldn't be possible without a good supporting cast. The three other senior guards, Chris Crawford, Dixon and Geron Johnson, all averaged over 10 ppg in their last season (Dixon's stats are based on the 2011-12 season when he last played).
Each will serve a special role for Memphis in its first year in the AAC. Crawford, of course, is the three-point guru and finally began showing his lethal touch from downtown as a junior. The C-USA Sixth Man of the Year struggled mightily over a stretch of games in Dec. and Jan., but came on strong to end the season, particularly in the C-USA Tournament where he was unconscious, averaging 25.7 ppg and being given Tournament MVP honors. He will be a huge part of the Tigers rotation and proved he can take over a game with the drop of a dime.
"Me and Joe, we stuck it out," Crawford said. "We're two guys that came from that (2010 recruiting class) that's still here. We just want to put it all out there. In other words, we just want to make this last year our best one. We've been here since freshmen so we just want to make this last one our best one."
Johnson was equally a huge part of last season's team, putting up 10.4 ppg, 4.6 boards, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals. He's extremely quick and a great slasher, but his most important role for the Tigers this year will be his defensive prowess. Johnson is an up-in-your-face defender and constantly puts pressure on the ball.
Dixon will also be a big contributor, being a former Big XII Sixth Man of the Year for Missouri. He didn't play last year, getting kicked off the team after his second sexual assault allegation despite never being charged. He received a waiver to play for a fifth year and gives Memphis yet another weapon. In 2011-12, he averaged 13.5 ppg, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals. He's a pure point guard that makes crisp passes and was a crucial part of Missouri's 30-5 record that year.
Dixon was a part of some very talented teams at Mizzou, which gives credit to his statement that this Memphis team is more talented than any of the ones he was previously a part of.
"There's way more talent here. I can honestly say that. The teams I played on at Missouri were a collective unit. We shared the ball together and we were talented, but we got so many different kinds of skills and talent here. We got size, we have athleticism, we got shooters, we got guys that can play make; I mean there's just so much more here than there was at Missouri. But, talent doesn't win games at all."
Still, talent accounts for something and the Tigers have no shortage of it. Add newcomers Kuran Iverson and Nick King, both of which project to play on the wing and could be the team's top future NBA prospects, to the rotation and Memphis' backcourt is scary.
Fellow freshman Markel Crawford is coming off an ACL injury his senior year in high school and could find it hard to get minutes in his first season. Sophomore Damien Wilson should be a good energy player on defense when needed.
However, a big problem last season was low-post play. Sophomore Shaq Goodwin is the only returning player down low from last season. He showed flashes of brilliance, but was up and down for most of his freshman campaign. Pastner felt he could've done much better than his 4.4 rpg and 7.4 ppg. To address that, Goodwin slashed 40 pounds, which will allow him to move quicker and play more above the rim.
"I feel like I could've done more, so one way I could make myself more prepared for this upcoming season was getting in shape and that's what I did," Goodwin said. "I sat down with my core group of friends and I told them this is want I want to do for this upcoming season. I want to be in shape and available for anything (Pastner) needs me for."
He's joined by Pellom, five-star recruit Austin Nichols and four-star mammoth Woodson. Nichols has already added close to 15 pounds since beginning workouts with the team in the summer and is expected to start alongside Goodwin. He's an athletic big man that has a nice arsenal of post moves and can defend, but perhaps his most important attribute is his basketball IQ. He learns quickly and just knows the fundamentals, such as where to be on the court in different situations, something that sets him apart from most freshmen.
"I'm not going to complain if I start at all, but if (Pastner) wants me to not start for a little bit I'd like to get worked in. My teammates can rely on me to give it 110 percent and just give it my all."
Pellom, who sat out last year due to transfer rules, figures to be a key in the low-post. The senior is a good rebounder and averaged a double-double in Atlantic 10 play his junior year. He will not only provide scoring and rebounding down low, but also figures to be a mentor in helping Nichols and Woodson progress.
Woodson is a monster of a man listed at 6'9", 318 pounds and gives the Tigers that big, physical force they have lacked in recent years. He uses his strength to overpower defenders under the basket, which also allows him to matchup against just about anyone down low physically. He needs to lose weight though, and replace the baby fat with muscle. Woodson will also have to work on expending his post moves, as he won't be able to rely just on his strength at the collegiate level. However, expect him to be used to bang with opposing team's big guys and give Memphis more rebounding.
The season opener on Nov. 14 is still over a month away, but today is when winning starts. The Tigers have been prone to slow starts in seasons past, something they can't afford in 2013-14 with a much tougher schedule. Working hard in the month prior to the start of the year to get plays down and improve team chemistry is essential to winning early on.
Pastner has all the talent he needs to get passed the first three rounds and into the Sweet 16. Now, it's a matter of turning that talent and vast potential into a fine-tuned product on the court. It won't be easy, but winning at a high level never is.
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