Four senior guards. Nine new faces, seven of them belonging to freshmen. A new league, the American Athletic Conference. And a home schedule that will feature games against league foes Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville and Temple, and non-conference opponent Gonzaga.
That’s the broad brush before The University of Memphis begins practice on Oct. 3, coming off a 31-win season, a last season of dominance in Conference USA and its first NCAA Tournament victory under now-fifth-year coach Josh Pastner.
Here’s a pre-preseason primer for this year’s squad:
CHEAT SHEET: Many new faces will be seen in Tigers uniforms this season, including (clockwise from top left) transfers Michael Dixon Jr. (Missouri), David Pellom (George Washington) and standout freshmen Austin Nichols (Briarcrest, Memphis) and Kuran Iverson (Fishburne Military School, Va.)
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
You may need a cheat sheet for Memphis Madness on Oct. 18. The roster has two transfers – senior guard Michael Dixon from Missouri, who may have the best combination of talent and experience on a very talented and experienced team, and forward David Pellom from George Washington University.
Among the freshmen, forwards Austin Nichols (Briarcrest), wing Kuran Iverson (Fishburne Military School, Va.) and swingman Nick King (East) are creating the most buzz.
Senior guard Chris Crawford on Iverson: “He can play every position for real because he can handle the ball, shoot, rebound.”
Crawford on Nichols: “Runs the floor real well, something we’re not accustomed to having. Very skilled around basket, doesn’t miss anything around the basket.”
About those four senior guards: Coach Josh Pastner already has said multiple times that if he were to coach until he was 70 – 35 more years – he might never coach a set of guards like this again. Dixon, Crawford, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson all know what it’s like to win 30 games in a season and play in the NCAA Tournament.
The question/fear/borrowed trouble that won’t go away: How do you keep them all happy? Just one basketball and everybody with one eye on the “next level” and so on.
“I don’t get caught up in all that,” Johnson said. “Our backcourt last year was good, know I mean?”
Yes, but this backcourt already has been judged one of the best in the country. Great backcourts tend to take teams deep in the NCAA Tournament. Expectations are high, but concerns about chemistry lurk beneath the surface.
“All the seniors have been through trials and tribulations,” Dixon said. “So we don’t want anything that’s outside of Memphis basketball to get in the way of us making a run and going to a Final Four. Because that’s the ultimate goal.”
“I’m gonna have to get guys in. Best way to do it is to press and to have as many possessions as possible.”
About that goal of reaching the Final Four: In general, the Tigers have talked much less about where this season might go. That’s in contrast to recent seasons, when there was much bold talk of rising to a Top 5 national ranking and playing for a national championship. All before the first game.
At times, it almost felt like there was an attitude of entitlement. That attitude appears to be gone and replaced by many references to hard work – Johnson and Dixon both get high marks for leading by example.
“I’m a big believer in actions more than talking,” Pastner said. “It was an opportunity for them to learn. Let’s do the talking after the production is there.”
The Tigers will press. Honest. Pastner insists that they will.
“You look at our length, we are going to have to press,” the coach said. “We have good talent. I’m gonna have to get guys in. Best way to do it is to press and to have as many possessions as possible.”
Who will lead this team? Great question. Right now, anecdotal evidence suggests Johnson and Dixon are the most vocal leaders. Pastner says he is holding Jackson accountable for being more vocal on the floor.
“I’ve been getting better with it every day,” Jackson said. “When I’m not on the court, that’s all I do is talk.”
The frontline players also seem willing to listen to Pellom, who already has his undergraduate degree.
Shaq Goodwin one year later. The sophomore is a changed man – physically and mentally, Pastner says. For his part, Goodwin says he altered his eating habits over the summer.
“Last year, out of 365 days in a year, I probably ate McDonald’s 360 days,” he said.
His weakness then: McNuggets. The goal now: supersized rebounds.
Funny, funny man. Freshman forward Dominic Woodson, who goes 6-9 and 318 pounds, claims he is the funniest of all Tigers. He could be right.
“Dom, I can’t move him,” said Nichols, who is 6-8 and 212.
Which leads to Plan B.
“When I am guarding Dom, I like to pull the chair so he falls on the ground,” Nichols said. “So that’s pretty funny. But he’s catching on to it now.”