New Tigers Prepare for Year-Round, 24/7 Attention

By Don Wade

Technically, they are next season’s Tigers basketball team. Truthfully, University of Memphis basketball is never out of season.

Guard Geron Johnson is one of University of Memphis head coach Josh Pastner’s returning players who understand the unique pressures that come with playing for the Tigers.

(Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports)

This being the summer, talk from practice sessions at the Finch Center is mostly for the good. People are excited that coach Josh Pastner finally appears willing to really use the press. People are encouraged by the early positive reports on freshman big man Austin Nichols (Briarcrest). Tiger Nation is, well, so glad. Not to mention excited for the school to begin play in the new American Athletic Conference after finally exiting downtrodden Conference USA.

“Our home schedule is going to be the best it’s ever been in the last 10 to 15 years,” Pastner said. “You’ve got Louisville, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Temple, South Florida, Rutgers, Gonzaga. Just those seven teams alone … that’s a loaded home schedule. Get your tickets now.”

The Tigers have a top-five recruiting class. With the return of senior guards Joe Jackson – last season’s C-USA Player of the Year – Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson, they also have a very experienced backcourt. Michael Dixon, a former Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year at Missouri, and a fifth-year senior, also joins the team provided the NCAA grants him a waiver.

Dixon and fifth-year senior forward David Pellom, a transfer from George Washington University, have discovered first-hand there is no offseason with Tiger basketball fans.

“My first day in town I went to the bookstore and it was, ‘Oh, you’re David Pellom, can we take a picture?’ At GW, I was there four years and I think I probably took three or four pictures,” Pellom said.

Said Dixon: “This is no disrespect to Missouri, but this is a different level. This is an elite program and these fans are tremendously passionate about Memphis University basketball. I can remember talking to somebody at a store about the Grizzlies, and no disrespect to them, either, but this is Memphis University, ‘We love our Tigers.’”

In short order, those same fans no doubt will gently correct Dixon on the name – U of M and not MU. But even for those freshmen who grew up here, immersed in all things Tigers basketball, there is an adjustment.

“It’s special from a positive and a negative standpoint,” Nichols said. “You gotta watch yourself in public, don’t do anything stupid.”And be prepared to be recognized just about anywhere.

“I was up at the Germantown Centre one time, it’s kind of weird, but I was in the hot tub and this guy just started talking to me, knew my name and everything,” Nichols said with a laugh. “So I just went with it.”

Former Tigers coach John Calipari typically avoided Memphis recruits because of how much family and friends could be in a player’s ear. Jackson (White Station) dealt with that and came close to leaving the program. So when he found his groove in the middle of last season, Pastner attributed part of his success to Jackson’s learning how to tune out the noise.

“He’s not letting anything bother him from the outside,” Pastner said then. “We can coach him hard and he’s not taking anything personal. He’s got a smile on his face and he’s not listening (to outsiders). In the past, and I think he’ll admit this, there were 900 voices in his ear and I think it played games and tricks with his mental approach, which is just normal. The maturation process has allowed him to filter some of that stuff.”

For his part, Pastner calls the non-stop attention from Tigers fans and local media “98 percent positive.” Still, it can be maddening to have every little thing noticed and critiqued. And that reality is something Pastner believes recruits need to understand before they sign on.

“I make (the attention) attractive,” when recruiting players, Pastner said. “But they need to understand if you want to play at that level of atmosphere, you get that here. But also if you don’t want it where every move you make is scrutinized, if you come out of the game and you’ve got poor body language … it’s going to be scrutinized. If you don’t show up to class everyone in the class knows and it’s going to be scrutinized. If you don’t want that pressure, that expectation, that microscope, then don’t come.

“I’m very up front with them about that,” he added, “so they can never say, ‘Man, Coach, you never told me I would be held to this standard.’ Fair or not fair, they are held to a higher standard.”

Freshman Nick King (East) says he gets it and his relatives do, too.

“My family understands that it’s coach’s team, not their team, and that there is a difference between high school and college and that it’s (my) business now,” King said.

Even if at the same time – 365 and 24-7 – Memphis Tigers basketball remains everybody’s business.