Tuesday, September 29, 2009

2009-2010 Team Preview: Memphis Tigers

2008-2009 Record: 33-4, 16-0 C-USA (1st)

Key Losses: Tyreke Evans (17.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 3.9 apg, Robert Dozier (12.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Shawn Taggart (10.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg), Antonio Anderson (10.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.5 apg)

Key Returners: Doneal Mack (8.7 ppg), Roburt Sallie (5.8 ppg)

Newcomers: Elliot Williams, Will Coleman, DJ Stephens, Malik Thomas, Tyler Foster, Drew Barham, James Harvey Jr.

Doneal Mack will be the Tiger's leading returning scorer.
(photo credit: Reuters)

The Memphis basketball program had an off-season to forget. It started with John Calipari bolting for greener pastures in Lexington, and taking his loaded recruiting class with him. It continued with the school being stripped of its 38 win and Final Four season in 2007-2008. It ended with the Tigers losing three kids who would have contributed significant minutes this season; Latavious Williams decided to play pro ball overseas while Martin Ngaloro and Angel Garcia both suffered season ending injuries.

But that doesn't mean the Tigers will be devoid of talent this season, as they do add two potential stars to a group of proven role players. The biggest addition, figuratively, was guard Elliot Williams, a former McDonald's all-american who was cleared to play this season after transferring from Duke to be closer to his ailing mother. Williams should fit in perfectly with this Memphis squad as he is a tough defender and an athletic slasher. He showed flashes of promise on the offensive end as a freshman at Duke, and with the Tigers losing their three leading scorers, they will be looking for someone to help handle the offensive load.

The rest of the Memphis back court are names that you should recognize. Willie Kemp and Doneal Mack, both heading into their senior years, seem like they have been Tigers forever. Kemp will have his work cut out for him. He started as a freshman, but with one-and-dones Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans handling the point guard duties the past two season, he was relegated to a bench role. If Memphis wants to win another C-USA title, they are going to need a big year out of Kemp at the point. As I said before, there isn't really a big time scorer on this team like there has been the last few years. For the Tigers to be successful, Kemp is going to have to be able to get in the lane and create.

Mack is the Tiger's leading returning scorer. Known primarily as a shooter, he has struggled with that aspect of him game a bit as his percentages have dropped from 41% as a freshman to just 33% last year. He is streaky, however, and if he can build some confidence early in the season he can be a dangerous weapon for the Tigers.

The x-factor for this team may be Roburt Sallie. Sallie has been a bit of a basketball vagabond, bouncing around from school to school (he originally committed to Nebraska) before finally settling with the Tigers last season. It took him a while to really break into the Memphis rotation, but he is a tremendous shooter, knocking down 47% of his three's. When he gets hot, there may not be a better shooter in the country. Anyone that doubts that should take a glimpse at what he did in last year's tournament - 16-24 from deep in three games, including a 35-point performance (including 10-15 from deep) where he single-handedly kept the Tigers in their first round game against Cal St. Northridge.

The biggest addition, literally, for the Tigers during the off-season was forward Will Coleman, a JuCo transfer. Coleman is a freak of an athlete, checking in at 6'9", 255 lb with a 40" vertical. Coleman may be more Joey Dorsey than Blake Griffin at this point in his career, but there's no denying the potential of someone who can do this. His front court mate will be senior Pierre Henderson-Niles. Niles has constantly battled weight problems since enrolling with the Tigers, but word out of Memphis is that Niles is down to 278 lb. A top 30 recruit before his put on the weight, Niles has a soft touch and quick feet for a big man. If he ever figures it all out, he could end up being a tattooed Big Baby.

The other two players expected to get minutes for the Tigers are sophomore Wesley Witherspoon and freshman DJ Stephens. Witherspoon is a rangy 6'8" wing that is good enough with the ball that he played some point during his freshman season. A fantastic athlete with all the tools you ask for in a prototypical NBA wing, last season he showed that he still needed a lot of polish on the skills aspect of his game. Stephens was a late signee by Pastner after Latavious Williams decided to head to Europe. The 6'5" forward out of Texas is a fantastic athlete (reports say he has a 43" vert), but not much more should be expected out of him outside of a few dunks and some defense.

Outlook: Depth is going to be the biggest issue for the Tigers this season. They only have eight healthy scholarship players, and just two true posts. If Memphis wants to win this season, my personal feeling is that they are going to need to rely on their defense. They have athletes at every position, and if they can play a pressuring defense (and not necessarily in the full court as mush as a smothering half court defense), they should be able to force a lot of turnovers. And with the athletes on this team and the lack of any truly developed offensive weapons, an emphasis on the transition should suit them just fine. While the conference won't be a cakewalk for the Tigers like in years past (especially with how good teams like Tulsa, Houston and UTEP will be), they should still be considered the favorite heading into the season. But if the Tigers disappoint in the non-conference (big games are Kansas, @ Umass, Tennessee, @ Syracuse, and Gonzaga), that sentiment could change rather quickly.

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