Reports of Memphis' Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IApril 23, 2009

Okay, okay, I admit it. I allowed my emotions to get the better of me, and in a previous article here on Bleacher Report, I might have resorted to hyperbole to describe the impact of John Calipari’s resignation would have on the University of Memphis basketball program.


Alright, “devastated” was too strong a term to use.


In all fairness, the article was factually accurate, but much too premature.


Typically, being wrong leads me into a set of histrionics that I prefer not to describe here. I mean, it doesn’t happen that often, so I don’t get a lot of practice at it.


However, this is one mea culpa that I am pleased to indulge in. Because three weeks after the disappointing announcement, the school is putting the pieces back together.


The future certainly isn’t as bright as it was before the Italian left—the best recruiting class this side of the Fab Five has been obliterated—but we Memphis fans feel pretty good right now.


This is where Josh Pastner comes in.


Pastner, who was only in Memphis to pack his belongings before heading up I-65 toward Lexington, Kentucky. He was about to sign on as Calipari’s lead recruiter and contribute to the rebuilding of the once proud Wildcat program.


That’s when Memphis Athletic Director R. C. Johnson stepped in and offered the job as Memphis head man to the 31-year-old wunderkind. The hire, though catching much of the Memphis fan base off guard, turned out to be absolutely brilliant.


Pastner’s first order of business was keeping as many of the players in Memphis as he could. That meant current scholarship players (all six of them), the walk-ons (one of whom had huge implications), and high-profile recruits.


So what does Josh do?


He encourages fourth-year junior Shawn Taggart to test the waters of the NBA draft.


Uhh, Coach Paz? That’s not quite what we Memphis fans had in mind. We were more thinking along the lines of keeping Taggart in town for his senior season. So just what was he trying to accomplish here?


He was showing his kids that he puts their interests first, that’s what he was doing. He knows that Taggart will probably go undrafted, but at least he has the chance to put himself more firmly on the radar of NBA teams, while also finding out what things he needs to work on if he wishes to take his game to the highest level.


Paz and his players rallied around each other, with Doneal Mack, Taggart and Wesley Witherspoon all publicly pronouncing that they intend to return next year. Roburt Sallie is mum, but it would only make sense for him to come back, as well.


One walk-on, Preston Laird, is a Memphis native. He will certainly be on the Memphis roster this fall. If he puts on strength and weight over the summer, he just might see the floor at times other than the last three minutes of blow-out victories.


However, walk-on C. J. Henry is heading to Kansas with his brother, consensus top-five high school senior Xavier Henry. That one stung, but it was expected; we can’t hold that one against Paz.


Already, however, he was up to seven roster players, six of whom will have scholarships. The configuration is favorable for the up-tempo style that Pastner says he wants to run: a center (Pierre Henderson-Niles), a power forward (Taggart), a small forward (Witherspoon), three shooting guards (Laird, Mack, and Sallie) and a point guard (Willie Kemp).


Henderson-Niles, though, continues to struggle with his weight; depending on him for extended minutes might not be the best of plans. I love the big lug, but what makes us think he’s going to lose enough weight this summer to be a factor, when he hasn’t done so over the past two off seasons?


Pastner was able to solve this quandary, too.


Will Coleman, a 6’9”, 260-pound low post monster at Miami-Dade Junior College, committed to Memphis last summer. Coach Paz was able to re-recruit him, and convinced him to honor the NLI that he signed.


Between Coleman, Henderson-Niles and Taggart, Memphis should be more than capable of scoring, defending, and rebounding on the block.


Pastner’s assistant coaching hires were particularly shrewd.


Willis Wilson, the long-suffering former head man at Rice University, has sent many of his players to the NBA, and is widely respected for his recruiting and teaching. He’s an exceptional addition.


Glynn Cyprien might be an even better acquisition.


The erstwhile Kentucky assistant and lead recruiter for Billy Gillispie, Cyprien has deep recruiting ties all over the Southeastern portion of the U. S. He has had successful stints at Kentucky, Arkansas, Oklahoma State and UNLV.


He also happened to recruit two very important basketball players: point guard Eric Bledsoe and center Daniel Orton.


Bledsoe long has been seen as a potential Plan B for Memphis, in case John Wall went elsewhere. Given that Wall certainly will not make his way to the Bluff City, Bledsoe is now Plan A for the Tigers. Cyprien should be an asset in the recruitment.


Orton, meanwhile, has signed an NLI with Kentucky, but will face stiff competition for playing time in Lexington. Perhaps he could have a change of heart and think of playing elsewhere?


Regardless of what happens with those prospects, Pastner is making all the right moves. He has already increased his focus on recruiting Memphis student-athletes, which is a most welcome development to Tiger fans. He is making a huge push for long wing prospect Latavious Williams, from Memphis and by way of a prep school.


All things considered, the hiring of Pastner and his subsequent activities have invigorated a fan base that was (rightfully) distraught just three weeks ago. Far from “devastated,” the basketball program is alive and well.


And I have never been as happy to be wrong as I am today.