Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at 335 Division I teams. To order the complete 2011-12 edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.
(Information in this team report is as of Oct. 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
What would we be talking about if Memphis didn't win the Conference USA Tournament? What would have been the Tigers' postseason fate if they hadn't have beaten UTEP on the Miners' home floor in the tournament title game? How hot would have Josh Pastner's coaching seat been if the Tigers had followed a late-season slide, which included three losses in four games from Feb. 19 to March 2, with a quick exit in the conference tournament?
While all of those are good questions, we don't necessarily need the answers. Memphis did win the C-USA Tournament and returned to NCAA Tournament after a year's absence. The Tigers won the conference tournament playing on someone else's home floor -- making the plays in the final minute to pull out a 67-66 win over UTEP. And Pastner not only is off any perceived hot seat but he also signed a new deal in March that runs through 2015-16 and pays him $1.7 million per season.
"They did what no one else has done yet, they won on someone else's home floor," Tulsa coach Doug Wojcik said of the conference championship game win over the host team in El Paso. "I think they deserve a lot of credit for that."
Life is good for Pastner, but the 34-year-old coach is well aware of the what-have-you-done-lately world of Memphis basketball. He handles the pressure cooker with what amounts to a shrug.
"It's the highest level that you can get to in sports," Pastner said. "You're scrutinized every game, 24/7/365, and that's great. This isn't my team, this is their team, and they have every right to express their views and concerns."
The good news is that Memphis is primed for another run toward some big things. Pastner, who built his reputation as one of the country's top recruiters, followed what was thought by some to be the country's best class last year with the addition of McDonald's All-America Adonis Thomas and Stan Simpson, a junior college center who could fill an immediate need for some inside depth.
Look at Memphis' roster and it's impossible to find a major flaw.
"I think everyone on our team can play," Pastner said. "We can literally go 11 deep, 12 deep if we wanted to, but that's not reality. You're main rotation is going to be seven or eight, depending if you want to press every game or you want to just play half-court. It's still early to tell how deep we'll play."
Pastner insists that he entered preseason practice with no idea who would start. He erased everything and invited all 13 players to win a starting job.
"No one has earned a spot," Pastner said. "I've told them you'll only earn a spot in practices and doing your job both on and off the court. We will see. I told everyone it starts a clean slate on the first day of classes."
PG-JOE JACKSON (6-0, 175 lbs., SO, #1, 9.9 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.0 spg, 21.9 mpg, .431 FG, .311 3PT, .726 FT, White Station HS/Memphis, Tenn.). When he's playing under control and with intelligence, no one on the roster -- or perhaps the conference -- can impact a game like the cat-quick Jackson.
"The reason we were better in the conference tournament was because of Joe's defense," Pastner said. "Late in the year, he started understanding how to use his speed and quickness. He did a great job against [high-scoring UTEP guard] Randy Culpepper in that championship game. Defensively, toward the end of the year, he was terrific."
Offensively Jackson has the ability to be equally terrific, even though he played too quickly at times. He finished with more turnovers (115) than he did assists (109), and that must change.
"There were some ups and down for him, but it worked out for him at the end of the year," Pastner said. "He got Conference USA Tournament MVP and led us into the NCAA Tournament."
Jackson spent part of the summer playing for Team USA in the U19 World Championship. He started in all nine games for the team, averaging 11.6 points and 4.1 assists.
SG-CHRIS CRAWFORD (6-4, 205 lbs., SO, #3, 6.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.3 apg, 1.6 spg, 26.3 mpg, .329 FG, .299 3PT, .742 FT, Sheffield HS/Memphis, Tenn.). The Memphis native came into the program with the reputation as a sharpshooter who hadn't committed himself to the defensive end. One of the highlights of his freshman season came against UAB when the Blazers' top offensive player, Jamarr Sanders, missed all 10 of his three-point attempts and was 5-of-17 overall from the field. Crawford played a big role in Sanders' offensive difficulties that evening.
"In high school, he was not a defensive guy at all," Pastner said. "We were very, very proud of him because of his defense. He became one of our lockdown defenders."
Ironically, the thing that troubled Crawford was his three-point accuracy. He launched 147, tied with Will Barton for the team lead, but converted only 44. Often, freshmen have to adjust to the speed and physicality of the college game and also to improve their shot selection. Pastner thinks Crawford will be improved as a sophomore.
"He's a terrific three-point shooter; he just didn't shoot the ball well last year," Pastner said. "That's why we expect him to shoot the ball a lot better from three-point range."
SF-WILL BARTON (6-6, 175 lbs., SO, #5, 12.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg, .428 FG, .699 FT, 2.8 apg, 1.5 spg, 30.6 mpg, .428 FG, .265 3PT, .699 FT, Lake Clifton HS/Baltimore, Md./Brewster Academy). The key thing with Barton, Pastner says, is the way he handled his first college offseason.
"The maturity that he's shown [during the] summer shows that he understands what he needs to do and what he needs to get better to have the year that he wants to have," Pastner said.
It was an up-and-down freshman season for the talented Barton, who came to Memphis facing lofty expectations. Now he's poised for bigger things after getting accustomed to the college game.
Barton was able to get to the basket against any team in the league but has to convert a little more regularly from outside the three-point line if he wants to keep defenses honest. He's capable, as he proved from time to time last season. He knocked down 4-of-9 three-pointers against Tennessee-Martin and 4-of-7 against Northwestern State. But he was also 0-of-7 against Gonzaga, 0-of-5 against Centenary and 0-of-4 against Rice.
Barton led Memphis in scoring, minutes played and defensive rebounds, was second in rebounding and steals, third in assists and fourth in blocked shots, so he's a stat-sheet stuffer who can only get better if he can convert a few more threes and cut down on his turnovers.
SF-ADONIS THOMAS (6-7, 220 lbs., FR, #35, 19.7 ppg, 12.3 rpg, 4.9 bpg, 4.0 apg, Melrose HS/Memphis, Tenn.). Breaking into the starting rotation on a roster that returns nearly everybody is certainly not easy. But the talented and athletic Thomas could do that because he's got playing experience that belies his years. He started on the 2010 USA U17 World Championship team that won all eight games and a gold medal. He was also on the 2009 USA U16 team that captured the gold in the FIBA Americas U16 championship.
"I absolutely love Adonis," Pastner said. "He can shoot. Defense is one of the biggest transitions that a high school kid makes coming to college, but he can defend. He's got a high motor. I think he's going to help us in a lot of areas. He understands what we're trying to do and the way we're trying to play."
Thomas was a highly regarded member of the 2011 high school class. ESPN rated him a five-star recruit, the No. 8 player nationally and the No. 2 small forward. Rivals also rated him a five-star player and listed him No. 17 on its Top 150.
ESPN talent evaluators were particularly impressed with Thomas' strength and athleticism:
"He is a matchup nightmare who is too strong and athletic for small forwards to guard and too skilled and quick for power forwards to handle & He is a terror on both backboards and plays with a high motor."
PF-TARIK BLACK (6-8, 252 lbs., SO, #10, 9.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 22.6 mpg, .528 FG, .587 FT, Ridgeway HS/Memphis, Tenn.). There were times when Black took over games as a freshman. There were also times that he couldn't be found. Obviously, consistency is a goal this year, but Pastner did say that Black was "terrific" as a freshman.
The numbers would suggest a solid rookie campaign. Black finished fourth in Conference USA in blocked shots and fifth in offensive rebounds per game (2.7). He averaged 11.8 points and 6.2 rebounds in league games only as nine of his 12 double-figure scoring games came C-USA opponents. His best game in league play was a 24-point, 11-rebound effort against Tulane. He also came up with 17 and nine against Southern Miss, 15 and six against UAB and 16 points against Houston.
Though Black converted more than 50 percent of his shots, Pastner would love to see him convert even more often and also improve his free-throw accuracy, because he'll always get a lot of attempts from the line. Last year he took 126 free throws, second on the team behind Joe Jackson's 146, but he made only 74 of them.
G-ANTONIO BARTON (6-2, 165 lbs., SO, #2, 8.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 1.7 apg, 24.6 mpg, .463 FG, .442 3PT, .679 FT, Lake Clifton HS/Baltimore, Md./Notre Dame Prep). Not nearly as heralded as his older brother coming in, Barton nevertheless played an important role in his first season. He played in 35 games and started at the point guard in some key games late in the season, including the NCAA Tournament game. Barton and Charles Carmouche hit some big three-pointers late in games for the Tigers.
"Those two guys saved us with three-point shooting," Pastner said.
Barton was actually the Tigers' most accurate three-point shooter; his 42 threes and 95 attempts were third on the team. He also handed out 60 assists, fourth on the team.
Barton will push Jackson for the starting spot and playing time at point guard.
F-WESLEY WITHERSPOON (6-9, 210 lbs., SR, #11, 9.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 22.9 mpg, .488 FG, .400 3PT, .774 FT, Berkmar HS/Atlanta, Ga.). Last season Witherspoon was a preseason All-C-USA pick, but his year didn't turn out the way he or Pastner would have liked. Injuries played a part; he missed two straight games in mid December and seven in a row in the heart of conference season.
Witherspoon was also suspended for two games after mocking an assistant coach.
Then there were the times when Witherspoon showcased his talent. He hit Lipscomb with 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three-point range, and also grabbed 14 boards, blocked three shots and made three steals. He racked up a 24/12 double-double against Northwestern State and scored 20 points, to go with seven rebounds and two steals, against LSU.
Unfortunately, the suspension and injuries unraveled his conference season. He reached double figures just twice against C-USA opponents.
Paster is hoping Witherspoon can rebound from his up and down junior year.
"With Wesley, we just need to see consistency, and I think he's going to do that," Pastner said. "I think he's going to have a nice year, I really do. I'm not putting any expectations or pressure on him. We'll see how he produces, but I think the biggest thing is he needs to be consistent night in and night out and produce at a high level."
Witherspoon performing at a higher level takes Memphis to a higher level.
G-CHARLES CARMOUCHE (6-3, 185 lbs., SR, #4, 7.4 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.5 apg, 24.7 mpg, .401 FG, .391 3PT, .679 FT, McMain HS/New Orleans, La./University of New Orleans). Carmouche turned out to be a fortuitous acquisition. He started in 28 of the 32 games he played during his first season after transferring from the University of New Orleans and becoming immediately eligible because that program is downsizing to Division III. His three-pointer at the buzzer lifted Memphis to a win at Southern Miss and that was just one of his clutch shots during the season.
"We didn't shoot the ball well, but guys made big shots late in games when big shots needed to be made," Pastner said. "And a lot of that was Charles Carmouche and Antonio Barton."
Carmouche saved perhaps his best game for the C-USA Tournament when he contributed 19 points, four assists and two steals in a win over East Carolina. He knocked down 3-of-4 three-pointers in that game.
Carmouche will contend for a starting spot once again and will play critical minutes no matter where he is in the rotation.
C-STAN SIMPSON (6-10, 235 lbs., JR, #32, 14.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 1.9 bpg, .530 FG, .720 FT, Simeon Career Academy/Chicago, Ill./John A. Logan College/Carterville, Ill.). Simpson gives Memphis a true post player option with his size and strength. He spent his first two college seasons at the University of Illinois but played only eight games in two seasons. All eight of those games came in 2009-10 when he was a redshirt freshman.
In junior college, Simpson regained the form he showed in high school.
"He's a kid that's got good hands, good footwork," former Logan assistant coach Kyle Smithpeters told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. "He has progressed, and I think there's still a lot more room and a lot more talent to be tapped in to."
Simpson, who also entertained offers from Connecticut and Kansas, was recruited as a replacement for Will Coleman. He isn't the athlete Coleman was, but he's got a better low-post game and he can also make free throws.
"He's going to have to be ready to go from day one," Pastner said. "He doesn't have time to wait and waste because he only has a certain time of eligibility left. He's going to produce from the first, there's no doubt, and he's got stiff competition."
F-HIPPOLYTE TSAFACK (6-8, 230 lbs., R-FR, #14, 1.0 ppg, 0.3 rpg, in three games, Yaoude, Cameroon/The Miller School/Charlottesville, Va.). Tsafack played in three games in 2010-11 before being sidelined by a bad knee. He was allowed a medical redshirt, and Pastner is counting on his return. Tsafack loves the game's blue-collar chores.
"He brings toughness, he can rebound, he can set screens," Pastner said. "He plays hard, he just plays hard. He sets the tone because he plays with a high motor. It's going to be a little bit before he's comfortable, but I think that's why those preseason practices are going to be good for him."
G/F-D.J. STEPHENS (6-5, 185 lbs., JR, #30, 3.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.8 bpg, 11.2 mpg, .641 FG, .550 FT, Herker Heights HS/Killeen, Texas). Stephens is capable of making a highlight reel with his jumping ability and athleticism. He's asked to provide a spark with his athletic play when he enters the game and often delivers. He's not a threat to score but is utilized as a rebounder and screener.
"He's really a four-man who is one of the best athletes in all college basketball," Pastner said.
G/F-DREW BARHAM (6-7, 194 lbs., SO, #12, 2.0 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 7.0 mpg, .295 FG, .244 3PT, .700 FT, Christian Brothers HS/Memphis, Tenn.). Barham started 10-of-27 games last season, with most of his starts coming when Pastner was trying to find a comfortable rotation and a little spark.
He was supposed to provide some outside shooting but connected on just 11-of-45 threes.
F-FERRAKOHN HALL (6-8, 220 lbs., JR, #0, 5.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, White Station HS/Memphis, Tenn./Seton Hall). The Memphis native, who won a Class AAA state championship at White Station High, spent his first three college semesters at Seton Hall and got a good dose of college seasoning before coming home. He transferred to Memphis last January and won't become eligible until Dec. 15. His first game will be against Louisville on Dec. 17.
The Tigers will look for immediate contribution from a player who learned how to play a physical game during his brief time in the Big East.
"I plan to bring a physical presence," Hall told the Commercial-Appeal. "Playing in the Big East, you kind of learn that you have to bang as a part of the game."
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Last season Memphis suffered a bit because of its youth, but the positive side of that is Pastner was able to give a lot of freshman playing time.
"Last year we were the third youngest team in the country," Pastner said. "This year, we're still going to be young because we're going to be sophomore dominated. But the sophomores will have played many, many meaningful minutes. They will understand about Division I basketball at the highest level -- what every possession means, what every game means, there can be no one possession off, everything is critical."
Memphis learned those lessons the hard way last season. Not many teams in the country played as many close games as the Tigers. They were 16-3 in single-digit games and 13-2 in games decided by five or fewer points.
Included in those gut-churning finishes were some closer-than-expected non-conference results against Arkansas State, Austin Peay, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Tennessee State. But also included were a pair of wins over C-USA champion UAB, a final-second three-point dagger delivered by Charles Carmouche at Southern Miss, the C-USA Tournament championship game win at UTEP and a two-point loss to Arizona in the NCAA Tournament.
"We got stops when we needed to make stops, we made shots when we needed to make shots and we got rebounds when we needed to get rebounds," Pastner said. "It didn't always happen in the first 38 minutes but it happened in the last two."
The loss in the NCAAs left a bitter taste, but Paster thinks the Tigers gained a lot from their late-season push to gain a bid.
"The momentum of getting to the NCAA Tournament was critical, because what it did was get us to 25 wins and a 29 RPI and we're still a 12 seed playing the Pac-10 champions," Pastner said. "That's a great lesson. Our guys understand now that how some of the losses we had early in the year affected our season. Even some of the games we won, every possession in every game means something in college basketball. You cannot take one possession off."
On paper, Pastner can put a team on the floor that can play any style. The Tigers will be fast and athletic no matter what group is on the floor and can wear teams down with their depth. Shooting the ball more consistently from the outside is a must, and Pastner thinks that will happen.
Put all of this together and how good could this team be?
"Hopefully we're 40-0, that's the only way to satisfy everyone out there," Pastner said, not entirely kidding. "Where we want to be is be a team that plays hard, utilizes our speed, athleticism and quickness and we play with a sense of urgency at every position. If we do that, we can be good. How good, I don't know."
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 335 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 2011-12 Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbookonline.com or call 1-877-807-4857.