Underestimate Josh Pastner and Memphis at Your Own Risk in 2009-10

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IOctober 4, 2009

A lot of people are sleeping on Memphis basketball.

Just to review: yes, we’re aware that John Calipari is no longer the head coach here in the Bluff City.

Yes, we know that Josh Pastner, who mere days ago turned 32 years of age, is now sitting in the captain’s chair for Tiger hoops.

Yes, the country’s consensus No. 1 recruiting class was subsequently wrecked. The bulk of it (DeMarcus Cousins, Darnell Dodson and John Wall) headed to Kentucky with Calipari; Nolan Dennis landed in Baylor, and only Will Coleman stuck with Memphis.

Yes, we realize that Martin Ngaloro, an intriguing prospect from France, tore up a knee and might never step foot on campus. Angel Garcia’s knee injury did not escape our notice, either.

Yes, there are only eight scholarship players available to Coach Pastner: Will Coleman, Pierre Henderson-Niles, Willie Kemp, Doneal Mack, Roburt Sallie, D.J. Stephens, Elliot Williams, and Wesley Witherspoon.

Yes, yes, that’s just three seniors (PH-N, Kemp, and Mack), one 23-year old junior (Sallie), one junior college transfer (Coleman), a sophomore who transferred from Duke (Williams), a sophomore returnee (Witherspoon), and a true freshman (Stephens).

Yes, even with walk-ons, there’s no way the Tigers will come close to having a full complement of 15 basketball players this fall. Likely, there will be only 12 young men on the roster.

Nor have we forgotten the stench associated with Derrick Rose and his SAT scores. First, the school was in the news non-stop for losing a head coach; then, the media hounds were publicizing the twists and turns in the Rose saga.

All of that aside—and yes, it’s a considerable amount, admittedly—things are not nearly as bleak as some people are making it out to be.

Before you pronounce me insane (you might be right, I’m just not willing to use this particular issue as proof positive!), hear me out on this one. . .

The first thing to remember is this: the 2009 edition of the Tigers is an extremely talented basketball team. The top seven in the rotation is comparable to any except the ultra-elite in the country.

Williams was a five-star recruit coming out of Memphis, and was fully expected to have a break-out campaign as a sophomore at Duke. Henderson-Niles and Kemp were both four-star, top 75 players as preps. Mack was top 50 and scored 31.1 points per game as a senior at Statesville Christian in North Carolina.

Coleman was a junior college All-American and one of the top 5 JUCO prospects this spring. Sallie was California JUCO Player of the Year two seasons ago. Witherspoon shot up recruiting boards like a rocket after his junior season in high school, and was a consensus top 50, four-star prospect.

Now, it’s true that just about everyone on that list has been overshadowed by other players on the Memphis team over the last two or three years.

But when Willie Kemp had to compete with Derrick Rose (No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year) and Tyreke Evans, selected No. 4 overall in this summer’s draft, is there really any shame in being the back-up point guard?

Henderson-Niles played behind Joey Dorsey, who is expected to soak up minutes with the Houston Rockets this season, and Shawn Taggart, who is cashing checks in Europe right about now.

Witherspoon teethed as a true freshman behind just about all the upperclassmen on the team, as he played every position on the floor at some point (albeit, he was at the “one-in” power forward/center position for only a few possessions in a single game last year).

Mack was a starter, but deferred a larger role in the offense to NBA draftees Antonio Anderson, Robert Dozier (getting paid to play in Greece), and Evans.

Sallie spent a considerable portion of the season in Calipari’s doghouse, backing up Mack and being a designated zone-buster, limiting his ability to show off his all-around game.

The point is: yes, a lot of talent is gone; but an impressive amount is still on campus. And anyone who thinks these kids don’t have talent and ambitions of playing professional ball is simply fooling himself.

These kids have seen guys like Anderson (Charlotte Bobcats), Rodney Carney (Minnesota Timberwolves), Dorsey (Houston Rockets), Chris Douglas-Roberts (New Jersey Nets), Dozier, Evans (Sacramento Kings), Jeremy Hunt (formerly NBADL, now looking for a contract), and Rose (Chicago Bulls) go on to greater or lesser paydays.

They played with these guys every day in practice! They saw the dedication, hard work, and talent that go into making it to “the next level.”

You don’t think they want to cash in, too?

And they have a coach—Pastner—who was quite literally born to run his own program.

When Josh reached the tender age of 16, his father, Texas coaching legend Hal Pastner, turned over the AAU operation, the Houston Hoops, to his teen-aged son.

Josh recruited players, set up the schedule, arranged transportation to games, booked hotels, promoted the team, sold tickets, got his players publicity—the works.

In 1999, Josh Pastner took the Houston Hoops to the 1999 Nike National Summer Championship in San Diego.

Pick up on that.

At the age of 22, Josh Pastner coached his all-star team to an AAU national title.

Just a fluke? I think not. In the summer of 2000, Pastner and the Hoops copped the AAU Global World Championship.

Pastner has done a remarkable job in every phase of his capacity as Memphis head coach.

First he appointed Willis Wilson and Glynn Cyprien as his assistant coaches. Wilson is an experienced teacher and one of the most respected men in college basketball, having developed many pros while at Rice. Cyprien is one of the best recruiters in the college basketball ranks, delivering Daniel Orton to Kentucky, for instance.

And speaking of recruiting, don’t look now, but Pastner—who will have up to 10 scholarships available for 2010-’11—has already begun signing a monster of a recruiting class.

He has snared five-star swingman Will Barton, five-star combo guard Joe Jackson, four-star shooting guard Chris Crawford, and Will Barton’s three-star brother, Antonio, a point guard.

He is squarely in the running for five-star forward Jelan Kendrick, four-star post player Tarik Black, and darkhorse big man Freddy Asprilla, who left Florida International after averaging 14 points and 9.3 rebounds per outing as a freshman.

Asprilla was not granted his release by FIU, so he is sitting out the 2009-’10 season and will have two years of eligibility left...if he does not jump straight to the NBA (GMs are already asking him to consider tossing his name in the hat at the 2010 Draft).

This isn’t a season preview; I want to see the team practice in person a few times before I write that.

It’s just my fair way of putting people on notice: the cupboard isn’t quite bare at Memphis. Some of you might think so, some of you might hope so, but you’re wrong.

It says here that the Conference USA title still goes through Memphis.


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