Few annual events in this city stir emotions like the opening of a Memphis Tiger basketball season. As the days shorten and the temperature drops, the hopes of the Bluff City's largest fan base spike with talk of the college team's next star, the best starting five, and possibilities of a long NCAA tournament run come March.
As year three of the Josh Pastner era dawns, Tiger fans should take a breath and remember that were it not for a remarkable run over the last six minutes of the 2011 Conference USA championship game in El Paso, the Memphis program would be coming off two straight NIT appearances. Overstuffed with freshmen last winter, the Tigers started 7-0 but then played inconsistent basketball for three months, stumbling into the C-USA tournament with a 22-9 record. Even with the three-day run to the tournament championship, Memphis was slapped with a number-12 seed in the NCAA tournament, where they battled mightily but lost in the first round to All-American Derrick Williams and Arizona.
Hall of Fame coach Al McGuire famously said, "The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores." Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Will and Antonio Barton, and Tarik Black will indeed play as veterans this season, which Tiger fans would like to believe means a boost in consistency. Add to this mix a freshman with McDonald's All-America credentials (Melrose alum Adonis Thomas), a senior looking to erase the disappointments of his junior season (Wesley Witherspoon), and two transfers who will add much-needed size to the team (6'8" Ferrakohn Hall and 6'10" Stan Simpson). If you're counting, that's nine players expected to make an impact in the upcoming season, and we haven't even mentioned holdovers Charles Carmouche, D.J. Stephens, and Drew Barham.
Does Pastner see himself with an abundance of riches or a surplus of bodies for 200 player minutes per game? "You want good players, and we have a lot of good players," the coach says. "We have 13 scholarship players, but all 13 won't play the same amount of minutes. Some are going to be happy, and some aren't. But that's what makes practice great — the competition. Those who earn it will play. If guys aren't getting the job done, I tell them. The best ally a coach can have is the bench."
The eyes of Tiger Nation — and certainly those of Josh Pastner — will be on Jackson, the sophomore point guard. Jackson's dynamics (and last-minute free throws) were critical in the comeback victory in last season's Conference USA championship, but the heroics came at the end of a season in which the former White Station High School star accumulated more turnovers (115) than assists (109). No player had a busier summer than Jackson, who started for the U.S. team that competed in the U19 World Championships in Latvia. (Jackson struck up a friendship with Jeremy Lamb of the national champion Connecticut Huskies.) And no Tiger player is more aware of the need for this year's team to control the basketball. "The things I need to work on are no different from any point guard," he says. "My problems in games were turnovers. I've got to make a conscious effort to take care of the ball."
Among his fellow freshmen, Jackson had the biggest adjustment to make last winter. He graduated from White Station having scored the fourth most points (3,451, an average of 23.2 per game) in the history of Tennessee high school basketball. While he did his share of scoring for the Tigers (his 9.9 average was second to Will Barton), his role as distributor, as offensive facilitator was inconsistent at best. Just two weeks before his star turn in the C-USA championship, Jackson had two assists and six turnovers against the same UTEP team on the same floor. The Tigers lost by 27 points.
Jackson's prepared to take some initiative entering the new season. "As the point, I need to be more vocal," he says. "Last year, I was shy. I'm more comfortable."
He's been reunited with Hall, a high school teammate, and looks forward to the contributions of Thomas, the fifth Parade All-American from Memphis (Jackson was the fourth). "Adonis works hard every day, and he can shoot it," Jackson says. "Gives me an extra option. He doesn't need the ball all the time to be successful. He's a one- or two-dribble guy. He's a slasher, and a big defender." ("Each day out, Adonis gets better," Pastner adds. "With our schedule — it's tough — we're going to need Adonis to produce.")
Pastner sees Jackson and Witherspoon (one of two seniors expected to be in the rotation) as a pair of variables who will help determine the ceiling for this year's team, if there's a ceiling at all. "They don't need to be Superman," he says. "They just need to play to their potential and be positive teammates."
Injuries and a suspension limited Witherspoon to 23 games last season, one in which he saw his scoring average (9.0 points per game) and rebounds (4.3) drop from the previous campaign. "Last year was a humbling year for him," Pastner says. "There were some good life lessons. When he looks back, it may turn out to be the best year of his life. It wasn't all his fault. You could put a lot on me, too. I can take blame and criticism. But I'm excited for Wesley. I'd like to think he took a step back last year so he could take two steps forward."
The lone Tiger to be named preseason first-team all-conference is Will Barton, the sophomore swingman whose athleticism and versatility with the ball call to mind Penny Hardaway. The elder Barton brother, though, was wildly inconsistent as a freshman, hitting six of 10 shots one night (in a win over UAB) and missing eight of 11 three nights later (in a loss at Rice). While Barton led the Tigers in scoring, it was the lowest team-leading total (12.3 points per game) in 30 years. He tied Crawford for the most three-point shots taken (147) but made only 26 percent.
"We need Will to be a consistently good defender and rebounder," Pastner says. "He needs to cut back on his turnovers. And he needs to be a better three-point shooter, but I think he can be one of the better college basketball players without taking a three-point shot. Just curling, moving without the ball."
Among Pastner's growing number of stars, who will lead on the floor and in the locker room? The most likely candidate is Black, the Ridgeway High School alum who was named co-captain last season, as a freshman. Black shed 20 pounds over the summer and is likely the most obvious example of the impact new trainer Frank Matrisciano has made as a member of Pastner's staff. Can a player so young (Black turns 20 in November) lead a team expected to win, and win big?
"Leader is a great word," Black says, "but it's more a characteristic you hold. Not something you're appointed. I just got up every day, went to practice, and if I felt like saying something, I'd say it. Whatever crosses my mind, I speak freely. I never put myself above the team. I look at the captain's role as Coach [Pastner] just telling me to be myself. If you're a natural leader, people tend to listen to you. It can rub off. People put 'team' before 'I.'"
Black points out that while the Tigers may be centered around five sophomores, the quintet played enough minutes as freshmen to be considered upperclassmen. (Black, Crawford, Jackson, and the Barton brothers each played at least 22 minutes per game last season.) They'll enter their second college season with a much better grip on the role each teammate plays, a factor, Black is convinced, that will make each individual's game that much better.
"We were comfortable last year," Black says, "but we really didn't know each other. Now, I understand what certain players are going to do in certain situations. Last year, I might just run around [the court], looking lost. I knew Joe was fast, but the other guys didn't know what he was capable of. They'd just heard that he was a prolific scorer coming out of high school. We got hands-on experiences last year that most freshmen don't get."
"It's just like a family," Jackson adds. "You've got to get to know everybody. It was rough at the beginning [last year]. We brought in so many people from different places. We didn't know how to complement each other's game. Will Barton is a late passer. Chris [Crawford] will give it to you early. You've got to know who you're playing with. It took a lot of film and practices to see where you fit in on the team."
Notes Pastner, "We had the third-youngest team in the country last year. There was a lot of immaturity. We're still relatively young this year. But the difference is that our sophomores played major minutes in key times last season. We had 16 games decided by five or less points, and we won 13 of those. We could easily have had 17 wins instead of 25 had we not done our jobs. We're ahead of where we were last year."
If Jackson is the face of one priority for this Tiger team (controlling the ball), Black is the larger embodiment of another: rebounding, particularly on the defensive end. Black led the Tigers last season with a pedestrian average of 5.0 boards per game.
"[Other coaches] who saw me this summer said we were the fastest team they saw last season," Pastner says. "But in order to run, we have to rebound the ball. Tarik needs to chase after it more. It's a matter of going after the ball. We've got the athletes to do it. Even if it's by committee, we have to find a way to rebound the ball. I'm constantly harping on it."
"The paint will always be my bread and butter," Black says, acknowledging that what he can do near the basket will help determine how far this team goes. "If I get the ball within five to 10 feet of the basket, I'm putting it in or getting fouled. I've been working on my jump shot, so if I stepped out to 17 feet, I can still put it in the basket."
The Tigers will enter the season as prohibitive favorites to win C-USA. (They've gone two years now without a regular-season championship.) They'll be in — or just outside — the top 10 of nearly every national ranking. (Memphis is number 9 in the coaches poll.) In a sport that turns over with every class of "one-and-done" stars, a team with five sophomores in its rotation can be considered veteran. And the Memphis veterans aren't paying much attention to the front-runner status.
"At the end of the day," Black says, "the rankings mean nothing. You have to perform. Last year at this time, Kemba Walker wasn't in mock drafts, and UConn wasn't ranked. But after Maui, they were Top 10, won their conference championship and [Walker] put on a championship ring. So being number 8, 24, or 100 ... the only reason I care about a ranking is for seeding in the NCAA tournament. As long as we're winning, the rankings will come with it."
"It comes down to working hard," Jackson says, "being prepared. If you work hard, the sky's the limit, whether you're an underdog or the marquee team. You've just got to bring it, do things the right way, use our IQ, and make good decisions."
In the coming weeks, the Tigers will learn what kind of team they have and how as many as 12 weapons might best be utilized to achieve the shared goal of thousands. "We have so much talent," Black says, "and we want to be a run-and-gun team, but there are times we'll find ourselves trying to beat someone in the half-court. We need to find our niche."
As for the coach, Pastner embraces the role of target for underdogs far and wide. "The league is still going to be good," he emphasizes. "I want us to be ranked number 1, preseason. It shows we're moving forward, and it's good for the program. But our goal is to be number 1 at the end of the year.
"What I tell the team is, 'Ignore the noise.' We won't shy away from expectations. This is a long season. We could start the season 4-0 and be ranked number 1 in the country, or we could start 0-4 and be out of the top 25. The fan base can't be too high with the highs or too low with the lows. I want them to be passionate, but I also want them to see the big picture. Look at last season. We were a possession away, or who's to say we aren't going to the Elite Eight instead of Arizona?"
The Tigers will host exhibition games at FedExForum on November 2nd and 11th. They open the regular season on November 15th at the Forum against Belmont (tip-off at 11 a.m.).