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VOL. 7 | NO. 47 | Saturday, November 15, 2014

New Look

Memphis Tigers begin life after the guards

By Don Wade

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A new season brings optimism – or marketing, if you want to be cynical about it – but also some reflective truth-telling.

Go back to this time last year for the University of Memphis basketball team. They were going to be really good, or maybe even great, because of the four senior guards. Those guards – Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon – were going to be leaders, defensive dynamos and 3-point sharpshooters.

An NCAA Sweet 16 was almost assumed, and a deeper run was considered a legitimate possibility.

In hindsight, it was all so much overselling. Which isn’t to say it was a bad season. Far from it. In fact, it was a pretty good season. The Tigers reached the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, finished 24-10 and knocked off several ranked teams along the way.

But it didn’t live up to the loftiest of expectations, and a year later coach Josh Pastner will make a couple of concessions.

“Obviously, I misjudged shooting last year,” Pastner said in reference to a 33 percent shooting performance from 3-point range, ninth in the American Athletic Conference.

And the transparent way in which he made the season all about the so-called four kings?

“I probably shouldn’t have said we’re throwing it all on the senior guards. Now, internally, yes, but publicly I probably shouldn’t have said that.” 

–Coach Josh Pastner on his transparency in turning last year’s team over to Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon – the so-called Four Kings

“I probably shouldn’t have said we’re throwing it all on the senior guards,” Pastner said. “Now, internally, yes, but publicly I probably shouldn’t have said that.”

This time, pronouncements from coach and players are more measured. Which is as it should be when the Tigers are not in the Preseason Top 25 rankings. In the Associated Press poll, Memphis tallied enough points to be 35th. In the USA Today coaches poll, they earned enough points to rank 31st.

Recently, in fact, Pastner said he was “out of the expectations business” and even had stricken the word from his vocabulary.

So, no, those giddy preseason alliterations – Elite Eight, Final Four – are not being thrown around like easy skip passes.

“I want you to know how much I mean this,” junior forward Shaq Goodwin said. “Talk means nothing. It never means anything. In (preseason), everybody looks good. If you went to 15 other schools, everybody would tell you, `We’re looking really good, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna do that.’”

Wise words, those.

This team is different and will play a style all its own. Goodwin and sophomore forward Austin Nichols are the only returning starters. They’re good enough that both were voted to the American Athletic Conference’s Preseason First-Team by the league’s coaches. So it’s hardly a secret how the Tigers will operate on offense.

“We’ve got to play through the post,” Pastner said.

How will the Tigers’ season go?

Most likely scenario: The Tigers finish third in the American Athletic Conference, just like the coaches predicted, and preseason first-team selections Austin Nichols and Shaq Goodwin have strong years. But the Tigers’ inexperience at other positions holds them back and Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson is inconsistent at point guard. The Tigers make the NCAA Tournament for a fifth straight year under Josh Pastner, but only get a 10 seed and lose their first game in the Round of 64. 

If everything breaks right: Playing the best team basketball in the Pastner Era, newcomers mesh with Goodwin, Nichols and Johnson and the Tigers win the American Athletic Conference title and earn a 5 seed in the NCAAs. They break through to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the John Calipari years. After Calipari’s team beats the Tigers by 23 points in the Sweet 16, he says Pastner, his former assistant, should be National Coach of the Year. 

If things go terribly wrong: Opponents determine the Tigers will not beat them down low with Goodwin and Nichols and force the Tigers’ backcourt to make outside shots and carry the offense. The largely inexperienced perimeter players aren’t up to the task and the Tigers finish middle of the pack in The American and miss the NCAAs for the first time since the 2009-10 season. Pastner reminds Tiger Nation that “it’s not a birthright to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

But this doesn’t mean Grizzlies 2.0. Goodwin and Nichols are never going to be confused with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

“Our pace has to be (quick) because we don’t have bruisers,” Pastner said. “We have runners.”

Between them last season, Goodwin and Nichols accounted for about 21 points per game – Goodwin averaging 11.5 and Nichols 9.3. That’s a place to start, but only a place to start.

Swingman Nick King played all 34 games as a freshman but only averaged 11 minutes and 4.9 points. None of the pure guards on this year’s team have any Division I experience, except for Vanderbilt transfer Kedren Johnson – the heavy favorite to be starting point guard. And hopefully that phrase “heavy favorite” doesn’t turn out to be literally true.

Johnson has struggled to keep the weight off his 6-foot-4 frame; he’s listed at 229 pounds and his conditioning has shown much improvement, but wasn’t where it needed to be when he got to Memphis this summer.

“When he came in here, he couldn’t beat anyone here on a line drill,” Pastner said. “That includes any media member. He was that out of shape.”

But he’s got game. As a sophomore, Johnson led Vanderbilt in scoring at 13.5 points per game with 3.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.0 steals.

“I’m just learning what guys do well, what guys don’t do well,” Johnson said, “what positions guys thrive in, what positions guys don’t thrive in.”

“He has a very welcoming personality,” Goodwin said of Johnson. “It’s hard to teach. He’s a genuine good person. I had no problem with Joe Jackson at all. He’s my right-hand man. But he was quiet, he kept to himself. Kedren is more open and that makes the team want to be around him and be around each other more.”

Yes, this is another one of those comments indicating a remix of the chemistry. Here’s another:

“The takeaway from last season is this year we need to get in better shape, play better defense, and actually listen to the coach every time and trust that what he’s saying is going to help us,” King said.

“Our chemistry is better this year and I say that all positive,” Nichols added. “Nothing against the guards last year, we’re just jelling better together this year.”

The roster has 10 new players, including true freshmen, redshirts and junior college transfers. One of the more notable is senior forward Calvin Godfrey, who has played for Iowa State, Howard College and Southern University, and is one of Pastner’s gambles – same as Kedren Johnson and in previous seasons Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon (both of whom worked out).

Godfrey, who is 6-foot-8 and 233, averaged 12.9 points and 8.8 rebounds at Southern as a junior.

“Rebounding translates,” Pastner said, making clear what he sees as Godfrey’s primary job here.

“If that’s what he’s asking, that’s gonna be number one,” Godfrey said. “I’m very appreciative of this opportunity.”

As they all should be. Come Nov. 18 in Sioux Falls, S.D., vs. No. 11 Wichita State, a new season begins. Everyone gets a clean slate.

Of course, as soon as the scores start rolling in, the evidence for and against a team begins to build. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will analyze, evaluate and dissect.

Soon enough, the Tigers and every other team will be what their record says they are. Or more to the point, what the NCAA Selection Committee believes their record says they are.

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