The 2010-11 Memphis Tigers are a team that will be remembered for its freshmen. Three of the four upperclassmen who entered the season in coach Josh Pastner’s rotation — Will Coleman, Wesley Witherspoon, and Angel Garcia — all came up short of expectations, for various reasons. (Those shortcomings are the primary reason this team is on the bubble for an NCAA tournament bid.) With two regular-season games left to play (Wednesday at East Carolina and Saturday at home against Tulane), the Tigers are aiming for a top-four seed — and first-round bye — in the Conference USA tournament.
Just what kind of impact have the five Tiger frosh made? Here’s a look at each player’s performance over 29 games, complete with a grade . . . one that could be boosted by a postseason run.
ANTONIO BARTON — Considered by many a recruiting throw-in, Will’s younger brother has been a surprising difference-maker, particularly in back-to-back road wins over Gonzaga and UCF. If you’re looking for the biggest shot of the season, it was either Charles Carmouche’s game-winning trey at Southern Miss or Antonio’s game-winning triple at UCF. (Imagine the Tigers’ tournament prospects had either of those shots not fallen.) He opened eyes early, leading the Tigers with 17 points in their season-opening victory over Centenary, and has twice been named Freshman of the Week. Antonio has had to establish a role not only in the shadow of his more highly-acclaimed brother, but also in that of fellow freshman point guard, Joe Jackson, a player to whom thousands of Memphians would like to hand the position for as long as Jackson is enrolled at the U of M. To the younger Barton’s credit, he’s making the decision hard for Pastner. Grade: B+
WILL BARTON — He can be a college basketball star, but he’s not there yet. Barton’s length and playmaking ability on the run call to mind Penny Hardaway at times, but Will has forced too many shots and committed too many offensive fouls to fit the “next Penny” tag. He has been the most exciting Tiger to watch this season, scoring from three-point range or via off-balance leaners in the paint. He’s been a better rebounder than expected (second on the team behind Tarik Black) and not exactly a liability on the defensive end. An intangible in Barton’s favor is his confidence. Between the ears, he’s already a star. With another year (or two?) of seasoning, the rest of his body will follow. Grade: B
TARIK BLACK — Not since the days of Chris Massie (and before him, Kelly Wise), have the Tigers had a go-to presence in the pivot. Black’s offensive skills are already superior to those of Joey Dorsey as a senior. Soft hands, a touch around the rim, a better-than-average jump-hook. When (or if) Black develops mastery for positioning himself before receiving the ball, he could be among the best Tiger big men in a generation. He’s already a shot-blocking menace, having enjoyed a stretch of seven games in which he blocked at least four shots in five of them. (Through Sunday, Black has 52 blocked shots for the season. Dorsey had 43 as a freshman.) Most impressive, perhaps, is Black being named a captain (along with Coleman, a senior). Leadership can’t be assigned, but it’s easily recognized. Grade: A-
CHRIS CRAWFORD — “Confounding” would be a nice, alliterative word to describe this shooting guard’s first college season. Expected to be among the Tigers’ top shooters, Crawford opened the season by hitting all six of his shots (including four three-pointers) against Centenary. He drained eight treys (in 15 attempts) over two games in December. But then Crawford had a six-game stretch in which he hit two of 18 three-point attempts. And a nine-game stretch in which he hit four of 34. An adept ball-handler and terrific passer, Crawford received some of the season’s toughest defensive assignments (i.e. Tulsa’s Justin Hurtt) and held his own. The tease here is the number of areas Crawford might impact when he regains his scoring touch. Grade: C+
JOE JACKSON — You can see the pressure on Jackson’s face. A homegrown superstar who set scoring records at White Station High School, Jackson in many respects personifies this Tiger season. Watch Jackson dribble through traffic (around much bigger players) and you see the talent that made him a McDonald’s All-America. But watch him bounce a pass off an opponent’s knee and you see how steep the learning curve can be for college basketball players, regardless of their prep credentials. While Pastner stirred his starting lineup like a potluck stew, Jackson remained the constant. But when his struggles began to show ripple effects in the team’s playing style, Jackson was forced to the bench (he played only six minutes in the win at Gonzaga). There comes a time when elite point guards must make a team their own. It will be interesting to watch how Jackson achieves this, or if Antonio Barton gets in the way. Grade: C