Memphis Tigers Basketball: Adonis Thomas and 5 Key Players to Watch
College basketball's Memphis Tigers are preparing to enter the regular season as the last of their exhibition games wraps up against Christian Brothers University, tonight. The Tigers begin the season against potential NCAA tournament qualifier Belmont and continue their early season competition at the Maui Invitational against Michigan. Then, the Tigers take on Duke or Tennessee to finish their stint in Hawaii.
It's the second year for Josh Pastner's heralded 2010 recruiting class, which included Joe Jackson and the Barton brothers, among others. Will the sophomores be able to step up?
Tiger fans should look forward to the growth of the Memphis sophomores in addition to the leadership of Senior Wesley Witherspoon and the athleticism of newcomers Adonis Thomas and Stan Simpson.
This could be the year Memphis returns to its former glory.
Wesley Witherspoon is one of the last talented holdouts from the John Calipari regime. Despite his talent, however, his attitude has held him back from reaching his full potential. This young Memphis team will look to him for leadership, but can he deliver?
Fortunately, this is Witherspoon's last hoorah, so he'll have to "put up or shut up." Knowing his abilities as a 6-foot-9 tweener who can play either guard or forward, he'll likely rise to the challenge. Witherspoon has had time to settle into Josh Pastner's offense and plenty of time to lose the rebellious attitude.
As a leader of this young Memphis team, expect Witherspoon to show up and play hard during his last season, adding significant length to what will likely be a stout Tigers defense.
Will Coleman is gone, but Stan Simpson has arrived. The Tigers have worked hard in the past to find a big man in the middle. Joey Dorsey took a few years to develop into a force inside, but upon his departure, Memphis was left with void where fans had become accustomed to Dorsey's presence.
A physical specimen, Coleman provided an answer for the Tigers, but his game was less refined than Josh Pastner or Memphis fans would have liked, despite his phenomenal athleticism. Enter Stan Simpson.
Simpson provides the same athletic ability as Coleman, but has a better game and can be a real scoring machine for the Tigers. He'll be a beast in the middle and allow the Tigers to take advantage of their ability to shoot from outside or cut to the hoop. Most importantly, he'll help solve Memphis rebounding woes.
Adonis Thomas is Josh Pastner's lone Top 100 recruit from the last cycle. Loaded with sophomore talent, Pastner only needed to selectively upgrade his talent, this year, which he did by landing Thomas.
Standing at 6-foot-6, the 210-pound athlete can play either guard or small forward. Athletic and quick, ESPN's No. 9 prospect should provide excitement the way Derrick Rose excited crowds when he was injected into a senior-heavy team for the Tigers.
A local product from Memphis, Thomas should also be a fan favorite, as he spurned both Tennessee and Kentucky to help the Tigers fill in the gaps exploited by opponents of last year's team. The key question is how far have the sophomores grown in order to support Thomas' unrefined abilities?
How ready is Thomas for the collegiate stage?
Joe Jackson recently returned from Europe after playing for the United States Under-19 Basketball Team. Is he ready to take his game to the next level?
Head coach Josh Pastner enjoys a fast-paced attack on the floor, and Jackson will be leading this Memphis team's charge during the quick transitions. He must be able to dictate his team's alignment and be intelligent in his passing if the Tigers hope to capitalize on quick buckets.
Jackson is little but he's quick. His experience in Europe will only serve to elevate his game sooner rather than later. The Tigers will likely ask him to contribute significant minutes every game, as he's the only real leader capable of driving this offense.
The key question for fans is how far Jackson's game improved during his time with Team USA.
The team leader in scoring last season, look for Will Barton's game to take a significant leap from his impressive freshman performance. With only 175 pounds on his frame last year, look for Barton to be leaner and larger, this year.
A larger frame and a full season of experience mean this talented Tiger should, again, lead the team in scoring. More importantly, fans should look forward to his game blossoming when opposing defenses have to focus on the scoring threat of Stan Simpson down low combined with the outside threat of a loaded Memphis set of hybrids who can play both shooting guard and small forward.
With the large number of outside and inside scoring threats, Barton is sure to benefit. Those benefits should mean that last year's averages of 12.3 points and 2.8 assists per game should only go up.
Can Will Barton be this year's most valuable player?
While only the most intriguing Tigers have been highlighted in this list, this is a very deep Memphis squad. Josh Pastner is going to benefit from a significant upgrade in talent, experience, and cohesiveness that he has yet to see as a head coach. With a unit clicking on all cylinders, how good will Pastner's team perform?
Some fans have been upset with Pastner at times, but one could argue he has been the victim of circumstance. In his third year, however, Pastner has all the pieces in place to return Memphis to its pre-Pastner success. In fact, this 2011-2012 Memphis program may rival some of the Tigers' best teams throughout its illustrious history.
Look not only for an exciting year from the Tigers, but look at this as the year Memphis fans finally see who Josh Pastner is as a coach. Is he better than former Memphis coach and current Kentucky coach John Calipari? If so, look for Memphis to make a very deep run in the tournament.
Assuming Josh Pastner is a truly better coach than Calipari, this would be the first time the Memphis Tigers have been both talented and well-coached since the 1970s.
Just ponder the similarities between this team and the National Championship runner-up program led by Derrick Rose. Can you imagine the possibilities?