- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's Note: This month, ESPN Insider's college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation's best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Memphis, which Jason King delves more into here. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.
It's official, if it wasn't already: NCAA tournament wins are the most valuable commodity in college basketball.
How do I know? Back in November, Memphis coach Josh Pastner was feeling some serious heat. After another disappointing early-season nonconference stretch, the Tigers' intense fan base grew restless. Respected local columnists were echoing laments screamed loudly at television sets throughout the Bluff City, openly wondering if Pastner could actually coach. Memphis seemed thankful for Pastner's prodigious recruiting ability and straight-laced work ethic, but also smarted from a series of first-round tournament exits.
A few months later, in late March, Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen signed Pastner to a contract extension, vowing Pastner would "remain our basketball coach for a long time."
What changed? Memphis beat Saint Mary's in the NCAA tournament, 54-52. Suddenly, thanks to one two-point victory in the Palace of Auburn Hills, it turns out Pastner could coach after all.
The immense silliness of this dynamic isn't limited to Pastner or Memphis, but as we've written before, his situation was a particularly poignant example. In 2011, the Tigers lost 77-75 to a Derrick Williams-led Arizona team (the same one that pummeled No. 1 Duke and Kyrie Irving en route to the Elite Eight). In 2012, they lost to Rick Majerus' diabolical Saint Louis defense. The 2013 Tigers (31-5) may be remembered as the team that got a sizable monkey off Pastner's back, but they finished No. 40 in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings. The 2012 team -- a drastically underseeded No. 8 that just so happened to play against a drastically underseeded No. 9 coached by one of the great tactical masters in college hoops history -- finished eighth in those same efficiency rankings.
That Pastner was under fire following the former and received a contract extension after the latter should tell you everything you need to know about the psychological stranglehold tourney wins maintain over our collective college hoops consciousness. It must be suffocating.
Perhaps, then, 2013-14 could be a breath of fresh air. Just as Pastner has been freed from the tyranny of small sample sizes, the program he leads is now free of Conference USA, a league it outgrew years before John Calipari jumped to Kentucky. (Speaking of small sample sizes, C-USA's mediocrity in recent years made every Memphis game in November and December utterly crucial and devoid of margin for error. Hence last winter's freakout.) The American Athletic Conference isn't the vintage Big East, but it is a much better league. It will offer more opportunities on a near-nightly basis than C-USA; it will allow Memphis fans to breathe much easier about their March tournament seed even if the Tigers sputter this fall.
Which brings us, finally, to the point of all this: For Memphis to shine in its first post-C-USA season, Joe Jackson has to have the best season of his career.
This may seem obvious. Of course the team's senior point guard and most-used player a year ago has to have a good season. And isn't that the expectation anyway? Shouldn't we pencil that in, and find a more pivotal, younger player?
It's not as obvious as you think. For one, Jackson, a proud hometown kid, has had a mercurial career. Jackson has veered from wildly promising to disappointing to the key cog in a backcourt that carried the Tigers through some truly disappointing frontcourt performances last season (most notably those of Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas, both of whom departed the program this season). The question is whether or not Jackson can take the progress of 2012-13 -- when he shot 44.7 percent from 3 and 54.4 percent from 2, and posted a 112.0 offensive rating -- and combine it with leadership, consistency and fewer turnovers.
That last bit might be the most important. Last season, Memphis' offense scored 1.06 points per trip. That's not bad, but it's not great, and it had a lot to do with the Tigers' 20.8 percent turnover rate. Jackson himself posted a typically high assist rate (27.8 percent), but also turned the ball over on 23.0 percent of his possessions. That was better than his freshman season (29.1 percent), but was a minor regression from 2011-12 (21.6), when his usage rate was three percentage points higher.
If the Tigers shoot the ball as well as they have in recent seasons, fewer turnovers will improve their efficiency almost overnight. Jackson has yet to prove he can reign in his cough-up tendencies and still be his slashing, daring self. He has to find a way to reconcile these competing impulses this season.
He also has to be a leader. Memphis has always felt young in Pastner's tenure. In 2011 and 2012, this was because most of his top contributors, recruited in Jackson's class, were freshmen and sophomores. In 2013-14, in Jackson and shooting guard Chris Crawford, Pastner will finally have genuine four-year starters with full careers full of experience, but his team will once more be very young. In addition to Thomas and Black, Memphis waved farewell to seniors Ferrakohn Hall, Stan Simpson, Charles Holt and D.J. Stephens, as well as junior transfer Antonio Barton. As is tradition, Pastner will bring in a talented class of freshmen, including four ESPN Top 100 prospects (power forward Austin Nichols, small forward Kuran Iverson, small forward Nick King, and point guard Rashawn Powell).
There are some returners to note: Geron Johnson is back, as is sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin, who is probably the most talented player on the roster. Even so, this is still a team that lost four guys to graduation, two to transfer and one to the NBA draft. It is also a team entering a new conference replete with new, more daunting opponents. There are few strings of words more synonymous with "leadership" than "four-year starting point guard." Jackson has to be that guy.
If Jackson were to merely repeat his solid 2012-13 -- if he really has capped out his potential, and really can't help the turnovers -- then Memphis can still be a good team. But if Jackson can put together a performance his hometown will remember him by, this young group might be capable of much more than one overanalyzed NCAA tournament win.