March 31, 2010
The Tigers’ dominance of C-USA ended this season and it was apparent this was inevitable the moment John Calipari packed up his prize recruits and left for the bluegrass of Kentucky.
Not only was Memphis not picked to defend its conference title, it was pegged to slide toward the middle of the pack and perhaps be left sitting home this postseason.
Ole Miss stopped the season with a 90-81 victory in the second round of the NIT. But the Tigers surprised many by winning 24 games and going 13-3, good for second-place in C-USA.
“I’m very proud of our team,” first-year coach Josh Pastner told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I told our guys in the locker room it was so important to stabilize the program because anytime there’s transition, programs can take a nosedive.
“For this year, with all the different things, these guys maintained the program at a very high level and, with the recruiting class coming in, it gave us momentum.”
A recruiting class ranked first in the nation.
And we presume, out of Calipari’s reach.
Final Record: 24-10, 13-3, second in C-USA.
What Went Right: Duke transfer Elliot Williams came home to Memphis and promptly led the Tigers with a 17.9 scoring average and gave them a legit go-to guy opponents had to game plan to disrupt.
Although the Tigers had some ugly losses this season, they rebounded from them and played on. Wesley Witherspoon emerged as a scorer, averaging 13.2 points in conference games. And big man Will Coleman, who struggled mightily early on, showed improvement and closed the season with 15 points and 14 rebounds against Ole Miss.
Forward Angel Garcia, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, showed very promising offensive flashes late and scored 17 points off the bench against the Rebels.
What Went Wrong: A lot of what went wrong against Ole Miss went wrong throughout the season. The Tigers were outrebounded.
Faced with a more talented and quicker team they couldn’t defend straight-up, they tried one gimmick zone defense after another and still Ole Miss shot 50 percent from the floor.
“We have about nine different defenses we played,” Coach Josh Pastner said. “They’re all the same thing and we just shift formations.”
Pastner made some in-game mistakes here and there, but you’re only a first-year coach once. The Tigers never learned to play a solid half-court game on offense, but with better talent next year Pastner will have more options.
Quote To Note: “This year was perseverance year.”—Senior guard Doneal Mack to the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Good News: What could have been a disastrous year for the program instead became a year of rallying the troops both on and off the court.
“Eleven, 12 months ago, there were three people in the gym and we didn’t know where the program was headed,” senior Doneal Mack told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “So for Pastner to come in, all these new guys, all these new coaches … and take us on a journey like this … we represented the city well.”
In fact, after the loss to Ole Miss, there were no bad vibes. Rather, Elliot Williams told the newspaper the goal for next season was to win the national championship. Will Coleman agreed, saying, “We’re taking everything.”
And no, they weren’t talking about the NIT.
The Bad News: Considering the tumult of the last year, the worst is behind the Tigers.
They did remain a poor free-throw shooting team, and only hit 13 of 23 (56.5 percent) in the loss to Ole Miss. Everyone’s optimistic the rebounding will be better, but it almost can’t be worse. They had a minus-2.4 rebounding margin and many nights were flat-out abused on the offensive glass.
And although the Tigers are talking a good game, there is still some wounded pride here. The program didn’t fall as far as it might have, but fall it did.
Will Coleman told the newspaper the Tigers know some people are “laughing” at them. “But they’ll be crying later,” Coleman continued, “I can guarantee you that.”
Key Returnees: “I plan to stay in school.”
So said Elliot Williams after the season. But will he? He likely would go in the NBA’s first round, if he comes out.
“I’m a student-athlete right now,” Wesley Witherspoon told the Commercial Appeal, sounding like he was reading from a script prepared by the NCAA. He’s coming back, which is the right choice for everyone.
Will Coleman and Angel Garcia return, too. So there’s a good nucleus to put with a great recruiting class that includes guards Joe Jackson, Will Barton and Jelan Kendrick, and frontcourt players Tarik Black and Hippolyte Tsafack.
• Doneal Mack and Willie Kemp ended their Tiger careers with 128 wins, second-most in school history.
• Mack’s 239 career 3-pointers rank third in Memphis history.
• Guard Roburt Sallie, bothered by a hand injury, scored just 21 points in the last three games of the season. Sallie, a junior, likely will be faced with drastically reduced playing time next season and has to be considered a candidate to transfer.