Josh Pastner has a chance to do something special in just his second season as a head coach.
He lost his star guard when Elliot Williams declared early for the NBA draft, but Pastner has enough role players returning and one of the top three recruiting classes in the nation coming to Memphis this fall.
Every decision is magnified, though, even those that are made in the middle of the spring before the heralded class gets on campus.
Pastner has been deliberate in his thinking and his decisions since taking over for John Calipari. He doesn't do anything rash. He thinks through every angle and tries to hear all sides before a decision is reached.
That's why he's not in a rush on deciding how to handle his last nonconference game on the schedule and whether to lock in on a foreign tour in mid-August.
Memphis didn't make the NCAA tournament in Pastner's first season. The Tigers won 24 games, went 13-3 in C-USA play and lost at Ole Miss in the second round of the NIT.
During the season, Memphis had four marquee nonconference games -- and lost all of them (to Kansas in St. Louis, at Tennessee, at Syracuse and against Gonzaga).
Had the Tigers knocked off one or two of those teams, then the profile would have been much different.
Pastner inherited a few series that will continue next season. The Tigers host Georgetown on Dec. 23, play at Gonzaga Feb. 5 and at Tennessee Jan. 5. Pastner signed on to play Miami (Fla.) on Nov. 15 as part of ESPN's marathon of games. The Hurricanes should be one of the sleepers in the ACC with the return of Durand Scott, and they should have momentum after pushing Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals.
Pastner also took a game against Kansas in the Jimmy V Classic in New York on Dec. 7. In addition, he picked up LSU in a neutral-site game in Tupelo, Miss. The Tigers were awful in the SEC West last season but are two seasons removed from winning the division, and one would assume they will be improved. Playing Western Kentucky in one of seven "buy" games (without a return) is a quality pickup because the Hilltoppers usually play a solid, high-power rating nonconference schedule.
Memphis has two true road games in the nonconference schedule and two neutral-site games. Based on my preseason predictions, the Tigers are playing four top-25 teams (Gonzaga, Tennessee, Georgetown and Kansas) and one sleeper (Miami).
In the final game, Pastner has to decide if the Tigers play another road game (probably not needed) or a neutral-site game. Getting a power-six game at home might be a reach at this point. Missouri is one school looking for games but might not want to start on the road. Pastner said he had heard of a possible neutral-site game against BYU or Oklahoma State in Las Vegas. Playing BYU would be a power-rating plus.
But is it too much? Remember, the Tigers are likely to start at least two freshmen in Joe Jackson and Will Barton. Returnees Wesley Witherspoon, Will Coleman and Angel Garcia are the other likely starters who will have to assume larger roles. The top players off the bench will likely be freshmen Jelan Kendrick, Tarik Black and Chris Crawford.
"I want to make sure we give ourselves the best chance of having a good RPI,'' Pastner said. "Do we add one more so-called top-25 team? Do we need one more? I'm debating it with such a young team. It's a tough call because Conference USA will be tough again.''
C-USA probably won't have the depth it had this past season. Even with Tim Floyd as its coach, UTEP will take a step back after the frontline departed when Derrick Caracter stayed in the draft and Arnett Moultrie withdrew and decided to transfer. Houston, which won the C-USA tournament, is going through a rebuilding situation with James Dickey. Tulsa lost its top player in Jerome Jordan. Marshall saw its best talent, Hassan Whiteside, declare and stay in the draft. Southern Miss returns the most productive players from last season and could be Memphis' top challenger. Still, there may not be another top-25 team in the conference outside of Memphis throughout the season.
"It was a big thing that we didn't beat any of those [nonconference] teams last year,'' Pastner said. "I've learned that you have to schedule smartly.''
While Pastner debates the last nonconference game, he's made a decision that Memphis will go on a foreign trip in mid-August -- with the newcomers if they pass three credit hours this summer. The only decision left is to go to either Costa Rica or the Bahamas.
The NCAA passed a rule this year that allows players -- freshmen or transfers -- to go on a foreign tour over the summer prior to enrolling if they earn three hours of acceptable degree credits during the summer term. The rule goes into effect Aug. 1. Pastner said all of the newcomers will be in summer school in late June and July. The trip would be in mid-August. By taking the trip, Memphis wouldn't play in an exempted tournament in 2010-11 (you're only allowed to do one or the other).
The previous rule wouldn't allow freshmen or transfers to go on a summer tour. Allowing players to go on a summer tour if they pass the three credit hours will probably result in more schools going on these trips. Previously, it was hard to justify a team with a host of newcomers going on an August trip and leaving some of the projected newcomers home.
It may only be early May but decisions that are made on trips, and on scheduling, can end up being extremely important months from now.
"For all of these new guys, going on a foreign trip, getting 10 practices, getting a feel for each other and getting to know each other will be positive,'' Pastner said. "It could be a great team bonding experience and positive for all.''