Joe Jackson leads an all-local starting backcourt for the Tigers
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 18 Memphis.
Josh Pastner has had Conference USA’s most talented roster each of the past two seasons, but those rosters were as short on experience as they were long on gifts. The top three scorers two years ago were all freshmen while the top five scorers last season were either in their first or second seasons with the program, which is young by anybody’s standards.
But this season will be different.
“The good thing is that even though this is my fourth year as the head coach, it’ll be the first time we’ve had an upperclassman-type of team, and I think that’s important,” Pastner says. “In our summer workouts, we didn’t have to go over terminology or start new. There was carryover. And that’s big for us because other than the three guys we signed, everybody knows what I want offensively, what I want defensively, what I want in general. The majority of our guys have now played major minutes at a very high level of college basketball, and though it doesn’t guarantee anything it should allow us as a team to have a better understanding of what it takes to be successful.”
The Memphis frontcourt has been an issue in Pastner’s first three seasons because nobody has ever developed into a consistent scorer or rebounder in the paint. Will Barton, a now-departed 6-6 guard, was the team’s leading rebounder last season.
That’s why why the arrival of Shaq Goodwin is welcomed. The McDonald’s All-American helped USA Basketball win the gold medal in this summer’s FIBA Americas U18 Championship by, among other things, scoring 30 points in a win over the Virgin Islands. He’s expected to be Memphis’ starting power forward, with junior Tarik Black back at center. Sophomore Adonis Thomas will start at small forward a year after an ankle injury that cost him most of the C-USA schedule and convinced him to delay entering the NBA Draft .
“The thing about Adonis is that he doesn’t need to score 25 to dominate a game,” Pastner says. “I mean, he has the ability to do that. But he can affect the game in lots of ways. He can defend three positions and be a stat-sheet stuffer. He can be a high-level rebounder and high-level assist man, and his shooting, right now, is at a high level. So I’m expecting and counting on him to play at a high level for us.”
The Tigers’ backcourt will be led by a pair of local guards — namely Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, either of whom could emerge as a first-team all-conference selection. Jackson, the MVP of the past two C-USA Tournaments, averaged 11.0 points and 3.9 assists last season while Crawford averaged 9.1 points and 3.8 assists. They have in the past and will again this season take turns bringing the ball up the court.
“The great thing about Joe and Chris is that they can play with and off of each other,” Pastner says. “They complement each other well and have great clarity in what they want to accomplish as a unit together.”
Antonio Barton, another junior, projects as a steady reserve. And the wild card in all this is Geron Johnson, regarded by some the best junior college prospect in the country. The 6-3 guard’s talent is undeniable, but he was dismissed from two different junior colleges and has had legal issues. Can Pastner get Johnson on the right path? Who knows? But the Memphis coach decided to give it a shot.
“Geron has to learn to play under control and use his athleticism within the game,” Pastner says. “But he’s a pro-level athlete. He’s a really talented guy.”
Pastner has done a tremendous job keeping Memphis relevant post-John Calipari, but he’s still looking for his first NCAA Tournament win. And though that might not be a problem nationally, it’s an issue locally and why Memphis needs to not only win C-USA but also advance in March. Otherwise, the program will be facing lots of questions as it transitions into the Big East next year.
“But our focus is this year, not the Big East,” Pastner says. “We’re not thinking about the Big East. We just want to have the best year we can have this year because teams are not gonna want us to leave on a good note, which is why we’ll have to be extra sharp and extra good.”