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Friday, March 26, 2010

Commercial Appeal's Dan Wolken - Season review: Fears turn to cheers as Tigers overcome defections to prosper

Season review: Fears turn to cheers as Tigers overcome defections to prosper
By Dan Wolken
Posted March 25, 2010 at midnight

Josh Pastner was concerned.

In the weeks leading up to Memphis Madness, with nothing planned aside from the list of recruits he wanted to bring in for visits, the first-year University of Memphis coach went to athletic director R.C. Johnson with a request.

Instead of holding the basketball season kick-off event at the FedExForum in front of thousands of empty seats, Pastner wanted to move it to the smaller confines of Elma Roane Fieldhouse on campus.

Though Pastner didn't doubt the passion of Tiger fans, Memphis Madness had not historically drawn huge crowds, even in years when the team was rated in the preseason Top 25. What would happen this season with the program in transition and virtually no expectation of national success?

Those fears, of course, were erased quickly Oct. 16 when the doors to a packed FedExForum were shut, preventing hundreds from getting in. For Pastner, the third-youngest coach in Division 1 at 32, it was the first of many moments during the 2009-10 season that would affirm in his mind what needed to be affirmed.

After taking over a program in chaos, teetering on the edge of national relevance with eight healthy scholarship players and a nasty NCAA cloud hanging overhead, Pastner knew then that the worst was behind him.

Sure, there would be more worries, more sleepless nights over the next few months as the Tigers compiled a 24-10 record. Ultimately, there was no satisfaction for Pastner in missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career as a player or coach.

But in the big picture, nearly everything that happened from Memphis Madness to the season-ending NIT added up to a big win for the program in its ability to survive and thrive despite the damaging departure of John Calipari.

"Obviously, the success Memphis has had in the recent four-year span was unreal -- unrealistic to be honest with you, because it was at such a high level," Pastner said. "It was so important for us to maintain at a high level (this year), and I felt like the guys did that. We got to 24 wins, we finished second in the conference, we got to postseason play."

Sure, Memphis could have won a game or two more. The Tigers maybe could have even eked their way into the NCAA Tournament had things broken the right way. What if sophomore guard Elliot Williams' game-winning 3-pointer had gone in against No. 1-ranked Kansas in the second game of the year? What if freshman D.J. Stephens had held onto a last-second loose ball at UMass in December? What if the Tigers had simply made their free throws against Gonzaga?

But those were small issues this season compared with what might have been.

When Calipari departed to Kentucky, taking everything with him from the recruits to his secretary to the last bit of Nike gear in the Finch Center storage closet and leaving behind only an NCAA investigation, it would not have taken much for Memphis to become Indiana.

After that school fired Kelvin Sampson amid scandal in 2008, Tom Crean took over a massive rebuilding project that required cleansing the program from top to bottom. After going 6-25 in Crean's first season and 10-21 in his second, Indiana, one of the great programs in college basketball history, is still struggling to recover.

"Quite honestly, it went better than I thought it would," Johnson said. "With all the guys we lost, if you had told me we were going to win 24, I probably wouldn't have thought that was possible."

Though Pastner credited his players with holding things together under adverse circumstances, the season in many ways was a testament to his long-term plan with just six scholarship players set to return and junior college forward Will Coleman deciding to honor his original letter-of-intent.

For a young coach in Pastner's position, the natural impulse would have been to fill out his roster with junior college players just for the sake of having a full team. Instead, Pastner let most of the scholarships stay open for the 2010 recruiting class where he believed he could recruit more talented players for the long term.

It was indeed a calculated risk. Among the group of returning players, none had ever averaged 10 points per game. Though the surprise addition of Williams helped, one major injury could have put the entire season in peril.

It turned out to be a winning gamble on both fronts, as Memphis signed seven players who made up the nation's No. 1 recruiting class and was still able to put up a solid season with a limited roster.

"I think we had an unbelievable year with the players we had," senior guard Willie Kemp said.

Through it all, the excitement over Tiger basketball never died. Memphis averaged more than 17,000 in home attendance, filling up the arena to see the Tigers play a mediocre slate of opponents as the home schedule was softened due to roster uncertainty. Every time it looked like the Tigers' season might slip away, they responded with big wins -- the performances at Tulsa and UAB to take second place in Conference USA were memorable -- to keep interest alive.

It appears likely to continue as the Tigers will likely move back into the Top 25 at the start of next season.

"I had more e-mails, text message, phone calls, random people I've never met who would tell me of all the years they've watched a Memphis basketball team, this is the most fun and favorite team I've ever watched," Pastner said. "For that, I'm so proud of the players, so proud of the seniors."

By the numbers.24: Wins for Josh Pastner, behind only Larry Finch (26) and Eugene Lambert (25) for first-year coaches in program history

10: Consecutive years with 20 or more wins, the longest streak in program history

16: 20-point games for sophomore guard Elliot Williams. Only three players since 1991 -- Anfernee Hardaway, Dajuan Wagner and Chris Douglas-Roberts -- have had more in a season

16,828: Average regular-season attendance at FedExForum

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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