Josh Pastner learned last year that relying almost exclusively on first-year players — even first-year players oozing with talent — isn’t as simple as those who ranked Memphis in the Top 25 of most preseason polls must’ve believed. His Tigers struggled before Christmas and after Christmas, limped through the C-USA portion of their schedule and suffered embarrassing losses to SMU, Rice and East Carolina. It was bad.
But then Joe Jackson started playing like the McDonald’s All-American he was supposed to be, and Memphis reeled off three consecutive victories in El Paso to win the C-USA Tournament and earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. A week later, they played Arizona tough before losing at the buzzer. So now Pastner is dealing with high expectations again — the only difference being that those first-year players are now second-year veterans.
“We have 99 percent of our guys back, but we’re not going to worry about other people’s predictions,” Pastner says. “We have to earn it.”
Key Tigers Stat: 2
Josh Pastner lost two assistants this offseason. Glynn Cyprien left to become the associate head coach at Texas A&M, and Willis Wilson is now the head coach at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
One of the few Memphis freshmen who exceeded expectations last year was Tarik Black, a 6'8" forward who entered college as a borderline top-50 recruit and is now projected as a future first-round draft pick. Black averaged 9.1 points and 5.0 rebounds. He’ll start in the middle and be backed up by Stan Simpson — a 6'10" former Illinois player who spent last season averaging 14.0 points and 8.5 rebounds in junior college.
“I think Tarik can be a terrific force inside, but the key to that is going to be us making shots from the perimeter,” Pastner says. “We’re going to need to be a good 3-point shooting team because otherwise the middle will be too clogged.”
Memphis will use two versatile wings at the other forward positions — Wesley Witherspoon and Adonis Thomas. Witherspoon, a 6'9" senior, battled injuries and attitude issues and was buried on the bench for parts of last season. Still, he’s talented, and with proper focus he could be an important piece to Pastner’s puzzle. Thomas is the second straight high-profile local star to enroll at Memphis. He is, like Jackson, a McDonald’s All-American. The 6'6" forward brings a winning pedigree, strong leadership and the all-around talent to be Memphis’ latest one-and-done candidate.
Ferrakohn Hall will add depth in the frontcourt when he becomes eligible in December. The Memphis native is a 6'8" transfer who began his college career at Seton Hall.
Jackson started at point guard for USA Basketball’s U19 team this summer, and he’ll do the same for the Tigers. Pastner’s hope is that the Jackson who averaged 18.7 points during the C-USA Tournament is in uniform, as opposed to the Jackson who struggled so mightily that he was actually replaced in the starting lineup last season.
“I knew it would take some time for him to get it, and he had some ups and downs,” Pastner says. “But Joe got it towards the end of the year and helped us get to the NCAA Tournament, and he played well this summer with USA Basketball, too. So I think he’s going to be good, and we need him to be good.”
Jackson’s backcourt mate is Will Barton, a 6'6" sophomore who also experienced ups and downs last season but emerged as the Tigers’ leading scorer. He averaged 12.3 points and 4.9 rebounds while showing a unique ability to create his own shot.
“Will being a year older is going to benefit us,” Pastner says. “He’s more mature and more focused now, but that’s the case for all of our guys.”
Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton and Charles Carmouche provide depth in the backcourt. All of them are talented enough to start at some point. Together, they’ll allow Pastner to teach lessons and Memphis to endure whatever turned ankles and pulled hamstrings that might pop up.
While struggling to a 10–6 finish in C-USA last season, the Tigers showed that having more talent than everybody in the league guarantees nothing. Everything was new for everybody — from Pastner to Jackson to Barton to Black. But now the coach is a year older and so are the top six scorers, all of whom return. The byproduct should be an easy C-USA title, another trip to the NCAA Tournament and, perhaps, the first Sweet 16 of Pastner’s young career.
“But predictions are for the birds,” Pastner says. “We want action — just production and action and nothing else.”
Conference USA Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16