Thursday, October 27, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 7 Memphis Tigers

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 25-10, 10-6 (4th Conference USA), lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Arizona

Head Coach: Josh Pastner

Key Losses: Will Coleman, Angel Garcia

Newcomers: Adonis Thomas, Stan Simpson

Projected Lineup:

- G: Joe Jackson, So.
- G: Charles Carmouche, Sr.
- G: Will Barton, So.
- F: Wesley Witherspoon, Sr.
- C: Tarik Black, So.
- Bench: Adonis Thomas, Fr.; Stan Simpson, Jr.; Chris Crawford, So.; Antonio Barton, So.; DJ Stephens, Jr.; Ferrakhon Hall, Jr.

Outlook: The Tigers were one of the most enigmatic teams in the country last season. Boasting a roster that was made up of primarily freshmen, the Tigers suffered through the ups-and-downs that come with that much youth. They struggled against inferior competition throughout the non-conference portion of their schedule and lost games they had no business losing during league play. Some of that was the result of a lack of leadership from their upperclassmen. Some of it was due to midseason defections. Some of that disappointment was due to expectations that far outweighed what should be expected of a group of kids playing their first season of college basketball. And, spreading the blame to everyone in the program, some of it was the result of having a greenhorn running the program in the form of second-year head coach Josh Pastner.

It all came together for the Tigers in the conference tournament, however, and Memphis earned themselves a trip to the NCAA Tournament when Joe Jackson knocked off UTEP in a de facto road game by hitting two free throws late in the C-USA title game. It was the culmination of a long and trying season for Jackson, who came into school with the most pressure of the entire freshmen class. He was the most heralded recruit in a long time to make the decision to play at home, in front of his hoops-crazed city. People were expecting greatness from the second he stepped on the court, and it took Jackson a while to adapt to that pressure. He struggled to get consistent minutes during the middle of the year, he struggled to shoot the ball throughout the year and he end the season with more turnovers than assists. But Jackson really came on strong during the Conference USA Tournament. While he's an ultra-quick lead guard that can put up big scoring numbers, Jackson is going to be asked to be a facilitator as much as anything this year. I'm expect a big season out of him.

Joining Jackson in the back court is Will Barton. Barton is an intriguing player for Memphis. He has all the physical tools to be a star -- he's a 6'6" two-guard with long arms, quickness and explosiveness, a decent-looking jump shot and the ability to do a lot of different things on a basketball court. Barton's issue, however, stems from his decision-making. Will he ever learn the difference between a good shot and a bad shot? Will he stop settling for tough pull-up jumpers? Has he learned to protect the ball? Barton is a terrific rebounder for his position, his a playmaker on the defensive end of the floor and he's a talented slasher that can hit an open three. If he plays within himself and stop trying to be the next Kobe Bryant, and Barton will be one of the best wings in the country.

The rest of the perimeter attack will be rounded out by a very solid group of guards in senior Charles Carmouche and sophomores Chris Crawford and Antonio Barton. Carmouche will likely get the start -- he started 28 games last year -- but both Crawford and Barton will see significant minutes off the bench. Barton is the biggest surprise of the group. He came in with the reputation of being not much more than his brother's brother, but he proved to be the best scoring option at the off-guard spot. He's a lights-out three point shooter and made a number of big shots throughout the year. Carmouche hit a couple big shots of his own last season, and while he's not as dangerous as Barton beyond the arc, he's still a very good shooter and the best fit within a system. Crawford is the best defender and playmaker of the three, he's also a bit of a gunner (147 threes, 29.9% clip) and a turnover machine (he led the team in assists, but turned the ball over more than twice a game).

The front court is where this team gets interesting. We'll start with Tarik Black, a 6'8" sophomore that didn't come in with much hype as a freshman. But by the end of the season, he was in the starting lineup and was easily the most consistent front court presence Pastner had at his disposal. He plays hard, he goes after the glass as well as anyone in the conference and he blocks shots and defends with a toughness around the rim. Black needs to work on his feel for the game -- passing out of the post, staying out of foul trouble, a soft touch, his hands -- but the consensus around the Memphis program is that Black, not Jackson or Barton, is going to be the guy that breaks out this season. There is legitimate speculation from people that would know these things that Black will be the Player of the Year in the conference this season.

Adonis Thomas and Wesley Witherspoon will both be spending quite a bit of time alongside Black on the Memphis front line. Both are incredibly versatile players that should, in theory, be able to be on the court at the same time, giving Pastner the option of playing Thomas at the three and Will Barton at the two. That's a big lineup. Thomas is a 6'6" combo-forward that some believe is the best prospect in the Class of 2011. He's big and physical enough to overpower a smaller defender, but he's got three point range and the quickness and ball-handling to blow past a bigger defender on the perimeter. That should compliment Witherspoon's game well. Witherspoon struggled to deal with expectations last season. There was talk that he could end up being a lottery pick with a big year. But after knee issues wiped out the early part of the season, Witherspoon struggled with his maturity and failed to embrace the role of leader. He was suspended, lost his spot in the starting lineup, and fizzled out by the end of the season. As a senior this year, it appears he is buying into the program, that he wants to be nothing more than a cog in the Memphis machine. And given his skill-set and all-around ability, he will be quite effective.

There is plenty of depth in the front court as well. Stan Simpson was originally an Illinois-commit. He's on campus and will provide size off the bench. Seton Hall transfer Ferrakhon Hall will be eligible in December and will provide some length, athleticism and shot-blocking ability. Drew Barnham and DJ Stephens give Paster athleticism and versatility off the bench as well.

All the pieces are there for Memphis this season. They have as much talent, top-to-bottom, as any team outside of UNC, Kentucky, UConn and Ohio State. The question for the Tigers is figuring out a way to get all the pieces to fit together. Will Jackson handle the pressure of playing in his hometown? Will Thomas? Can Will Barton and Witherspoon find a way to be players within a system, instead of players that need a system to revolve around them? Is Black as good as advertised?

Perhaps the most important question -- is Pastner prepared for this task? Anything short of a Conference USA title and a trip past the NCAA Tournament's first weekend will be a major disappointment for this group.

No comments: