When Xavier travelled to Memphis last year, the Muskies were a team trying to re-establish their identity in a post-brawl world. They were clearly no longer the dominant force in the A-10, and it wasn't 100% clear that they were going to find themselves in the NCAA tournament. A statement win over Memphis would have given X a huge boost in terms of resume; instead, the men in blue came up just short against the men in a slightly different shade of blue. It all worked out okay for Xavier though, as they once again got hot at the right time and made it to and through the first weekend of the tournament.
Things are probably going to be different this year. Memphis was an eight seed last year despite being Ken Pomeroy's eighth-best team in the nation. A draw against Saint Louis was bad luck for them, and they went home after just forty minutes of tournament action. This year's team is even more loaded than that one was, and - with another great recruiting class coming in - the foundation is present for the Tigers to make a deep tournament run.
When: 7pm Tuesday, 2/26
Where: Cintas Center
It's never easy to be the guy who replaces John Calipari. Not only does he leave a high standard of on-court performance to live up to, but you're also probably going to be working under restrictions placed upon you by the NCAA. Josh Pastner has thrived as Calipari's successor in Memphis though, racking up 75 wins in just three years. Pastner likes to get his teams out and running, averaging nearly 69 possessions per game in each of the last two years. Three-point attempts have diminished in each of his three years in charge, down to just 27% of the team's shots last season. With an EFG% of 54% (12th in the nation) and a TO rate in the top 100 last year, it's no wonder Memphis ran one of the most efficient offenses in the country.
Defensively, Memphis smothers teams. They forced turnovers at an average rate last season, but they were in the top 10 in field goal percentage against. The Tigers also have been in the top 25 in percentage of opponents' shots blocked every year since Pastner arrived. If they have a defensive weakness, it's on the glass. While they have improved in each of the last three years, Memphis was still below average in defensive rebounding last season.
Memphis only lost two players from last year's squad, but they were both very talented. Six-foot-six guard Will Barton declared for the NBA draft after posting 18.0/8.8/2.9 to lead the team in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore. He also threw in 1.4 steals per game and a .509/.346/.749 shooting line for good measure. Barton played 87% of the team's minutes and took more than a quarter of their shots while he was on the floor. Also leaving was 6'9" swingman Wesley Witherspoon. While he never quite lived up to the promise he flashed in averaging 12.5 and 4.6 as a sophomore, he was able to use his length to create matchup problems for opponents. He was good for 7.2/3.7/1.1 with 1.5 steals per game on .444/.365/.714 shooting in his senior year.
Rising junior guard Joe Jackson was second on the team in scoring and assists last year with a 11.0/2.2/3.9 game line on .420/.302/.837 shooting. He was narrowly edged out for the team lead in assists by fellow returnee Chris Crawford, who averaged 9.1/3.1/3.8 with 1.8 steals per game last season. Both of these guys can play the point or shooting guard, provide smothering defensive pressure, and generally give Pastner a pair of solid veteran options in the backcourt going into this year.
Inside, forward Tarik Black returns, bringing with him his 10.7/4.9/0.2 with 1.5 blocks per game. At 6'8", 262 pounds, Black is built like a bull and draws fouls inside at an elite level. Six-foot-seven, 240-pound forward Adonis Thomas battled injuries his freshman season but was still able to put up 8.8/3.2/0.8 on .486/.405/.708 shooting. Thomas was a highly-regarded recruit last year, and his ability to score inside and outside (15-37 from deep in 19 games last year) makes him a huge matchup problem.
Guard Antonio Barton went for 6.6 PPG and 1.6 APG off the bench last year and hit 30 of his 75 attempted threes. The delightfully named Hippolyte Tsafack also returns.
Good players make good coaches, and Josh Pastner has landed three of them (good players, I mean) for the upcoming season. Six-foot-eight forward Shaq Goodwin was a McDonald's All-American and a member of the ESPN100. His 245-pound body and freakish athleticism made him a star in football and basketball in high school, but he has focused on hoops in college. He gets up and down the court well, battles hard on the boards, and is a force in the paint with the ball. His exterior game is still developing, but he has enough of a jumper to make defenses respect him all the way out to the arc. Wing Damien Wilson is an aggressive slasher who is always in attack mode on offense. His bread-and-butter right now is getting to and finishing at the rim; his jumper has some kinks that still need ironed out.
Geron Johnson is a 6'3" guard who is transferring in from Garden City Community College. Johnson was a top-100 player out of high school, but an arrest for attempted burglary and some academic troubles sent him the JuCo route. His troubles didn't stop there; he was dismissed from Chipola Junior College his freshman year after being arrested for marijuana-related indiscretions. His career at Garden City lasted into February, at which point he was dismissed for another series of run-ins with the law stemming from his theft of another student's cell phone. On the court, Johnson is a gifted player who can score from all over, has explosive athleticism, and is able to work open shots for his teammates. His talent level is such that Memphis was not the only high-major school ready to roll the dice on him.
Memphis is loaded this year, with four returning players figuring to slot uncontested into the starting lineup and a host of talent options leaving Coach Pastner with a bevy of strategic choices for the fifth spot. Even if Geron Johnson doesn't get his act together, this group is talented enough to make noise late into March. With another recruiting class featuring four ESPN100 players coming in next year, the future is bright indeed for the Tigers. This season, the Muskies are going to have real trouble holding off Memphis.