This time last year Josh Pastner had a backcourt some were describing as college basketball’s best thanks to the presence of four senior guards, all of whom had previously averaged double-figures in points at the Division I level. He was going to press and run and overwhelm opponents with talented veterans. And though Memphis did remain in the Associated Press Top 25 poll every week of the regular season, the truth is that none of the senior guards had what anybody would describe as a terrific season, and the Tigers failed to advance out of the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year.
Those four senior guards are now gone.
The situation in the Memphis backcourt won’t be as dire as it could have been. The eligibility of Kedren Johnson, who transferred from Vanderbilt, gives Pastner one guard who has played at the Division I level. The news came only weeks before the first practice of the season. Johnson, who led the Commodores in scoring two seasons ago, was suspended for the 2013-14 season at Vanderbilt but received received a wavier to play this season after transferring to Memphis. His arrival can’t be understated as Memphis now has an experienced point guard to go with a solid frontcourt.
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What Memphis lacks in backcourt experience it makes up for in frountcourt experience (and talent) thanks to the return of Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols, a pair of forwards who both started a year ago. Goodwin, a junior, averaged 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds last season. Nichols, a sophomore, averaged 9.3 points and 4.3 rebounds last season.
“We’re gonna play through them,” Pastner says. “They have to produce.”
Nick King will be given every opportunity to start at small forward. Is he a natural wing? No. But he’s just too talented to bury on the bench, and the only thing that’ll keep the 6-7 sophomore from playing 20-plus minutes per game is an inability to guard the position. Aware of this, King has been taking yoga classes to improve his flexibility and footwork in an attempt to improve his perimeter defense.
Memphis Tigers Facts & Figures
Last season: 24-10, 64-18 CUSA/AAC
Postseason: NCAA round of 32
Consecutive NCAA appearances: 4
Coach: Josh Pastner (130-44 at Memphis, 64-18 CUSA/AAC)
AAC Projection: Third
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
Before Johnson’s arrival, Memphis lacked any guard with experience on the Division I level. More than that, the Tigers lacked a natural point guard. The Vanderbilt transfer fills both of those gaps. Johnson led the Commodores in scoring 13.5 in 2012-13 before serving a year-long suspension for a “non-academic university policy.”
The rest of the backcourt may be a hodgepodge. Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell, Dominic Magee, Chris Hawkins and Avery Woodson are all talented in their own ways. But, again, none of them is experienced, none of them is a natural point guard, and Crawford and Powell haven’t played competitive basketball in two years. Crawford redshirted last season as he recovered from a torn ACL while Powell missed last season for academic reasons.
“There’s gonna be some mistakes made because they haven’t been in game situations,” Pastner says. “But I also think that we have guys who can do things with the ball and who are talented. So you don’t wanna box them in, either. You wanna allow them to have some creativity and make plays.”
Emmanuel Mudiay’s decision to sign a contract in China rather than play at SMU combined with significant personnel losses at UConn and Cincinnati combined with Louisville’s departure to the ACC gives Memphis a shot to compete at the top of the league again.
But it’s rare for an inexperienced backcourt to lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. So Memphis fans still holding on to the final five years of the John Calipari era would probably be wise to lower expectations, just a little. The future is still bright for the Tigers, undeniably. But this particular season could turn into a learning experience for all.
“We might have one or two plays and that’s it (at the start of the season),” Pastner says. “We just have to be as basic, as fundamental, as defensive-minded as possible, so that we can get things accomplished. We can’t get to step C if we haven’t accomplished step A, and we’ve gotta get to step B before we get to step C.”
Pookie Powell and Markel Crawford both essentially redshirted last season and project as possible starters in the backcourt while junior college transfers Trahson Burrell, Chris Hawkins and Avery Woodson are all capable of cracking the rotation. Dominic Magee is the only true freshman on scholarship. He’s a 6-3 guard who averaged 22.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.0 steals last season in high school.