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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Daily Helmsman - 2009-'10 over, Tigers shift focus to national title in 2011

2009-'10 over, Tigers shift focus to national title in 2011
By: Joseph Russell
Posted: 3/23/10

From the coaching vacancy in April to the scramble for a new head coach and ending up with Josh Pastner, from coming within inches of knocking off No. 1-ranked Kansas to losing on the road against Southern Methodist, from narrowly missing the NCAA Tournament and falling to Ole Miss in the NIT - the 2009-'10 season for The University of Memphis men's basketball season was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride.

"Not even a year ago, we didn't know what would happen," senior guard Doneal Mack said. "The whole coaching staff left. We had three players in the gym and a strength and conditioning coach. This was a persevering year."

Fellow senior Willie Kemp, one of just two players on this year's roster than have played four years for the Tigers, admitted that the year wasn't what they hoped, but it's no reason to hang their heads.

"We didn't know what we were going to have," he said. "We didn't know who was going to coach us, we didn't know who was coming in. I think we had an unbelievable year. With the players we had, we made it work."

But just as quickly as it came, it's now gone.

And so the Tigers must look forward to their next ride, one in which they hope ends with a national championship in 2011.

Junior forward Will Coleman, who finished the season averaging 7.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game, went as far as to guarantee the NCAA Championship for The U of M next year.

"Number one, for sure," he said. "Nothing lower than that. We're trying to win next year and take it all, everything. We aren't leaving anything on the table. We're taking everything."

Coleman, who spent the last month of the season as the squad's only true big man, has the potential to become one of the nation's more dominant post players next season. The junior college transfer struggled at times this season, but when the pressure was put on him to perform with the departure of Pierre Henderson-Niles, Coleman answered.

"I just kept working," he said. "I made a promise and I wanted to stick by it and keep it. That's what I did."

While Coleman remains a constant for next year's squad, questions have surrounded other players for weeks as whether they will return, try out for the NBA or even transfer elsewhere.

Sophomore forward Wesley Witherspoon, who averaged 12.5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, said he hasn't even thought about not being a Tiger next season.

"I plan on being here four years and graduating," he said. "That's what I signed up for. I'm a University of Memphis student and that's what I plan on doing."

Meanwhile, perhaps the biggest question mark for Tigers fans is sophomore guard Elliot Williams, the Tigers' leading scorer at nearly 18 points per contest.

The Memphis native, who transferred to The U of M after a freshman season at Duke, has made several appearances in various NBA mock drafts, which put him towards the end of the first round.

Williams reputed the rumors, stating that "as of right now I'm returning" and that anything less than a national title in 2011 would be a disappointment.

"This year was fun and it was overachieving, but our mindset now goes from holding everything together and stabilizing," Pastner said. "Now let's take the next step and we'll work in doing the very best we can. Our goal is winning a national championship."

With the recruiting class that the Tigers have coming in next year, it perhaps rivals the group of players that Memphis fans were hoping on having for 2009-'10 before they bolted elsewhere following the coaching change in April.

"You've got to have players," Pastner said. "If you have players and they play hard, you have a chance to win a lot of games."

The U of M's 2010 recruiting class, highlighted by five-star guards Will Barton and Memphis product Joe Jackson, has already garnered attention as one of the best groups of incoming freshman in the country.

Barton, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard from Brewster Academy in Wolfboro, N.H., is ranked by as the No. 2 shooting guard in the nation. Meanwhile, Jackson, from White Station High School in Memphis, is a 5-foot-11 point guard known for explosive drives to the basket and is ranked the No. 5 point guard in the country.

Joining them will be 6-foot-6 forward Jelan Kendrick from Marietta, Georgia, who was a surprise addition later in the signing period. Known for playing multiple positions, Kendrick is expected to add even more versatility to Pastner's squad.

Two more local products will join the fray in 6-foot-7 center Tarik Black from Ridgeway and 6-foot-4 guard Chris Crawford from Sheffield. Both are four-star recruits ranked in the nation's top 65 players.

Rounding out the class is three-star recruits Antonio Barton, a 6-foot-2 guard and brother of Will, and 6-foot-8 forward Hippolyte Tsafack.

"They're going to be a team to be reckoned with," said Kemp. "All this year, we didn't want to talk about next year, but now you can talk about it. They're going to be great. They should come into the year ranked in the top five, and I'm going to watch them all the time."

Even though he has potentially the best incoming backcourt in the country, Pastner said he may be even more excited about his team's inside game next season.

"People ask me if I want to sign another big guy - you tell me," he said. "With Will Coleman and Angel Garcia, that's a very good frontline. And Wesley is a perimeter player, but we can do some things inside too. Plus with the recruits we have coming in, Tarik and Hippolyte, that gives us a great frontline presence."

Even though a national championship is at the front of everyone's mind for 2010-'11, Pastner said, there's still a lot of work they have to do in order to get there.

"The mindset and the mentality of working is that you have to be a pro and win a national championship," he said. "That doesn't mean you have to be a pro or win a national championship, but it means you've got to work with the discipline, with the dedication, with the determination of those things - every single second."

As far as his name being brought up in coaching changes, Pastner said there's no place he'd rather be next year than Memphis, even if other schools offer a big contract.

"This is one of the top ten jobs in America, maybe one of the top five," he said. "When you're winning and you have good players, money is no issue. It's about being happy."
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