After an offseason of turmoil that would have sent normal programs into an abyss, the Memphis Tigers basketball team is ready. They begin their fight to stay relevant as a national program when the 2009-10 season begins this Friday against Jackson State.
As much as this has been mentioned, let's reset this past offseason one last time:
- John Calipari leaves UM for coaching job with tradition-rich Kentucky.
- 2009 recruits run from Memphis like rats scattering from a sinking ship. (Xavier Henry, Nolan Dennis and Darnell Dodson get out of their letters, DeMarcus Cousins decommits, CJ Henry transfers .)
- Starter Shawn Taggart decides to forego his remaining collegiate eligibility and attempt to go pro.
- Loses tough recruiting battles for impact prep-hoopers Eric Bledsoe and Lance Stephenson. (If you want to call Stephenson's pursuit a normal recruitment .)
- Secures a commitment from Latavious Williams, only to have him back out and try his hand at a pro career.
- Angel Garcia suffers a severe knee injury, sidelining him for the 2009-10 season.
All of this, along with the departures of Tyreke Evans, Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier, should have spread fear and concern throughout Tiger Nation. The strange thing is that is not happening. Thanks to one man.
A Tiger assistant on Calipari's staff, but still an unexpected hire, Pastner has generated the energy of a power plant to keep the hopes of Tiger fans high. With a positive attitude and dedication, he built a top-flight coaching staff and was able to secure a top-five group of high school talent for the 2010 recruiting class.
As far as the 2009-10 team, Pastner and staff has a cast of players who, for the most part, found themselves in the crosshairs of the previous head coach with little expected from them. While talented in their own way, they were clearly looked at as outcasts and afterthoughts of the previous regime.
This year is different.
Pierre Henderson-Niles, Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack have the opportunity in their final season to prove their last coach wrong and realize some of the vast potential heaped upon them coming out of high school.
Along with sophomore Wesley Witherspoon, Conference-USA sixth man of the year, junior Roburt Sallie, JuCo-transfer junior Will Coleman and Duke transfer (and Memphian) sophomore Elliot Williams, the trio of seniors are tasked with bridging the gap of the Calipari Era and the highly anticipated 2010-11 season.
What should be expected this season?
The good thing is that Memphis has a tempered non-conference schedule to go along with a usually-weak Conference-USA slate. This being Pastner's first season as a head coach, the first several games will be a learning experience for players and coaches; understanding how each reacts under fire. It will result in losses to teams like Kansas and probably UMass, Arkansas-Little Rock and Syracuse. (And don't sleep on Jackson State.)
Early reports so far flat-out say Coleman is not ready. That has got to change. If not, it puts a lot of pressure on Henderson-Niles to man the paint.
Williams, Sallie and Witherspoon will have to be the go-to guys. They, more than anyone, have the skills to do it.
While Conference-USA is as weak as ever, Memphis has come down closer to the level of the leading conference contenders. Tulsa, Houston, UTEP and others are licking their chops with their best shot in years to top the Tigers and win conference.
The run of undefeated conference play will end this year, but the Tigers, if their top seven or eight players stay healthy, have a shot to remain king of the hill. However, with the conference tournament being held in Tulsa, the Hurricane should get the automatic NCAA tournament bid.
Unless some big wins happen against Tennessee, Syracuse or Gonzaga, chance are high Memphis will not have enough wins (or quality wins) to get an at-large NCAA bid.
New coach. New system. A roster limited to six or seven Division I-level players. Limited big-man options. Too much to overcome.
Expect NIT, but while you do, stand up and give this year's group an ovation. After this past offseason, they've earned it.