There was a time when Memphis carried the banner for schools outside of the Big Six. Sure, Gonzaga was a darling, and Xavier and occasionally Butler made some noise, but Memphis looked for most of the last decade to be the non-BCS school with the best chance of actually making the Final Four and perhaps even taking home the hardware. Those were the heady days of John Calipari though, and when he left town with the NCAA posse nipping at his heels, Memphis came back to the pack both in conference and the national picture.
The man who stepped into Coach Calipari's vacated shoes is former Arizona and Memphis assistant Josh Pastner. Pastner cut his coaching teeth on the AAU circuit, taking over Houston Hoops from his father at age 16. His tutelage under Calipari and Lute Olsen - as well as his reputation as a hard worker and persistent recruiter - have made the 33-year-old one of the most highly-touted young coaches this side of Chris Mack. With only two years of information to work off of, it's hard to tell what Pastner's tactical style is. His offense was up-tempo last year after having a below-average tempo in his debut; his team also went from 41st in the 3P frequency to 183rd. Defensively, his squads have ranked in the top 75 nationally in eFG% and the top 25 in percentage of opponents' shots blocked both years.
The only meaningful departure Memphis has from last year's squad is 6'9" center Will Coleman. Coleman was captain of the team last year, and his 7.0/4.5/0.3 line came on .631/.000/.585 shooting in fewer than twenty minutes per game. The Tigers were 58th in the nation in bench minutes last year, getting 36.1% of their court time from the reserves. They were 344th (i.e., next to last) in experience weighted by minutes played. On a team with that much young depth, you can bet that there are players lining up to take Coleman's minutes.
You would be correct in that assumption. Will Barton used 23.5% of Memphis' possessions while he was on the court, and led the team in scoring with a 12.3/4.9/2.8 line that also ranked him second on the squad in rebounding and third in assists. His shooting line (.428/.265/.699) was nothing spectacular, but the 6'6" guard was only a freshman. Leading rebounder (5.0 RPG) Tarik Black was third on the team in scoring (9.1 PPG) and - at 6'8", 252 - is a legit space eater in the middle and is also heading into his sophomore year.
Other rising sophomores include Joe Jackson, a 6' guard who was the team's second-leading scorer with 9.9 PPG, Antonio Barton, who shot .463/.442/.679 last year, leading assist man (3.3 APG) Chris Crawford, and Hippolyte Tsafack, who has an incredible name. This all goes without mentioning the possible contributions of Wesley Witherspoon, a mercurial 6'9" swingman who went for 9.0/4.3/1.0 on .488/.400/.774 last year despite being in and out of off the court trouble all season, or University of New Orleans transfer Charles Carmounche, a rising senior who posted 7.4 PPG last year. Just two years after Calipari bounced and took his recruits with him, Pastner and his staff have assembled as interesting a group of young talent as any other school in the nation.
The gem of Memphis' 2011 recruiting class is highly-coveted Adonis Thomas, a 6'6" forward out of Melrose High in Tennessee. Thomas put up 21.8 and 11.2 with 1.4 blocks as a senior last year, and was well-rated by every major scouting service. He is noted for his high-intensity game at both ends, which allows him to rack up the boards despite being slightly undersized. His jumper is consistent from inside the arc, but he could use a little work on his deep game. His strength and athleticism make him a threat off the dribble as well as in a catch-and-shoot situation.
Memphis also brought in JuCo transfer Stan Simpson out of John A. Logan Community College in Illinois. Logan was an Illinois commit who played a year for the Illini before heading to junior college due to some potential academic issues. He was rated by Scout as the #7 junior college player in this year's pool, and his 6'11", 240 lb frame will help give the Tigers the elite size that they lacked without him on the roster. He's a back-to-the-basket big man with good rebounding and shot blocking skills who post 14 and 8 at Logan last season.
The work done by Pastner and his staff has not gone without notice among the media at large. Though they were only a 12-seed last year, the Tigers are in or around the top 10 in many preseason power rankings. As Pastner settles in as the coach and the players feel more comfortable in the college game and with each other, Memphis will likely show massive improvements from the 24-win season last year. With a year of experience under its belt, this young and talented squad figures to be a tough road test for the Muskies this season.