Tuesday, February 17, 2015

What Did We Expect From These Memphis Tigers?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 17, 2015 at 9:34 AM

“If you’re forecasting, you’d say we’re loaded for the future: everybody’s coming back, the recruits we’re getting. But people are anxious to see how we do this year. This is a brand-new team, starting from ground zero.” — Josh Pastner, October 2014

Every team, regardless of the sport, lands in one of three areas at the end of its season. The team exceeds expectations, it manages to meet expectations, or it falls short of expectations. But how are expectations defined for a team “starting from ground zero,” as Tiger coach Josh Pastner described his 2014-15 squad last fall? Does the metaphorical bar move up (or down) once the games begin? Wherever the expectations bar is finally set, how realistic is its placement if more than half a team’s players are rookies?

As the Tigers’ winter slog continues, connecting the dots between this team’s expectations and actual performance, instead of getting clearer, has grown fuzzier with each dispiriting loss. When Austin Nichols crashed to the floor with an ankle injury against Temple on February 7th, that bar of expectations dropped a notch or two further, leaving the Tigers with an uphill climb toward a reasonable seed . . . in the NIT.

Josh Pastner

In terms of individual expectations, only three players entered the season with a reasonable barometer of performance as Tigers:

Nichols has exceeded expectations, and by some distance. Before his injury, Nichols had become the Tigers’ primary threat offensively (13.3 ppg) and a shot-blocking force in contention for American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Every time the sophomore connects on a midrange jumper, his draft stock rises. If he sticks around two more seasons, Nichols could become the fourth Tiger to earn first-team AP All-America honors.

• Shaq Goodwin’s game has picked up the last two weeks, but the season has been a disappointment for a junior named all-conference in the preseason. Expectations were for Goodwin to improve on his sophomore numbers (11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game) while serving as Nichols’s partner in the paint at either end of the floor. He’s been the Tigers’ second best player — and has looked like his more-famous namesake the last four games — but that says more about the rest of the roster than it does the former McDonald’s All-American.

Nick King has labored through various injuries (ankle, groin), started a few games, sat out others entirely. Again, if expectations are for a veteran to improve on his previous season, King has fallen short. He shows flashes of being a versatile scorer when the Tigers have the ball. But a difference-maker? Not yet.

Then there’s the rest of Pastner’s rotation: Avery Woodson, Markel Crawford, Kedren Johnson, Trahson Burrell, Calvin Godfrey, Pookie Powell. What were their expectations? What were Pastner’s expectations for them? (Considering the season’s downward spiral, the coach’s view would presumably be “fall short” for all six.) Twenty-five games into the season, I’m still not sure how to grade a player like Johnson. Fans — and analysts — have clamored for the Vanderbilt point guard who played a starring role two (long) years ago in Nashville. So Johnson has fallen well short of those expectations. The others? The Tigers may in fact have the Woodson, Burrell, and Crawford “as advertised.” As supporting players, they’re good enough to go 15-10, but no better.

If Connecticut blows out the home team Thursday night at FedExForum, Pastner’s seat on the Tiger bench will become positively flammable. You have to wonder about the thoughts of first-year assistant coach Keelon Lawson, as he sits a few seats to Pastner’s left for this season of discontent. Two of Lawson’s children, of course, are expected to be next season’s answers to the Tigers’ problems. Can K.J. and especially Dedric Lawson take the floor next November and make the winter of 2014-15 a distant memory? Can two siblings — each a top-50 recruit — sell thousands of tickets to FedExForum that went unsold this season? If you think Pastner’s seat is hot, consider that of a colleague and father . . . with the stakes higher for this program than any since John Calipari arrived 15 years ago.

For sanity’s sake, Tiger fans might take the approach of one Stephen Hawking, a man who recognizes a formidable challenge: “My expectations were reduced to zero when I was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus.”

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