This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of MemphiSport.
The University of Memphis basketball team has enjoyed tremendous success over the years, including a trio of Final Fours and a couple of NCAA Championship Game appearances. But could this be the year that sees the Tigers finally capture their first national title?
Led by a pair of national player of the year candidates, a host of talented sophomores and a heralded freshman, U of M hoops is poised to have a season that could rival any of their previous best.
Here’s a breakdown of some of the key players on the roster and what to expect from them this year. MemphiSport also talked to each player about what he thought the best part of his game was, what the coaches want from him and what they need to improve upon.
6’6” Guard, Sophomore – Baltimore MD
Barton will be counted on this year to be the team’s leader and primary scorer. Wiry but athletic, he often showed signs of brilliance in his freshman season but often took plays off and was nearly invisible during some games. The majority of the players MemphiSport spoke with expect Barton to be their leader, both on and off the court. Assuming he displays those characteristics, this will likely be his last year of college basketball. If the team is to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament, it will take something special from Barton to get them there.
Primary role, best part of game: “My scoring ability of course. I’d like to say my versatility. I think I have a lot of offensive tools. I can score; I can pass. My will to win and compete. I think those are my biggest strengths.”
Needs to work on: “I think I still need to keep improving on my body. My defense. I think I need to work on my 3-point shooting. Last year I delivered sometimes, and sometimes I didn’t. I think my team needs me to be more consistent. Be the go to guy and deliver on a regular basis.”
6’1” Guard, Sophomore – Memphis TN
Jackson, having often been referred to as the “King of Memphis,” faces possibly more pressure than anyone else on the roster. His status as a local high school legend probably forces him to try to do too much at times. Primarily viewed as a scorer before he debuted on the college level, last year saw Jackson struggle to adapt to the role of distributor. During the C-USA tournament however, it appeared as though Pastner began using Jackson as more of a scoring threat coming off the bench. In order for the Tigers to achieve the kind of success they want, Jackson will need to find balance between being a scorer and a passer.
Primary role, best part of game: “Leadership. And scoring. I can score with the best of them.”
Needs to work on: “Just cutting back on turnovers. Because you know, turnovers equal losses. As long as I can control the game and not turn the ball over, I’ll be fine.”
6’8” Forward, Sophomore – Memphis TN
During its recent glory years, Memphis has relied mostly on beating its opponents off the dribble and driving to the basket to get points. Black offers something the Tigers have lacked during this period. A solid interior offensive presence. It became evident early in the year during his freshman season that he was already the best post player the U of M has featured since Chris Massie donned the blue and grey during Calipari’s early years. Although he struggled defensively at times and found himself in foul trouble, Black quickly became an irreplacable part of the team and was even named as one of the team captains. Pastner expects Black to see frequent double teams this year, which should open up the 3-point shot, something their coach wants them to capitalize on.
Primary role, best part of game: “They expect me to be a big man. But I think this year they’re relying on me to be a great defender as well. I think that’s one of the big parts of this team, because the saying is, like every coach uses, defense is everything. Defense is your offense. It wins championships. We played a lot of good players last year at my position that I wasn’t able to hold last year simply due to the times I used to get in foul trouble. I got fouls very easily last year. And coming into this year, I think the team expects me to be a bigger matchup problem for people. I’m long, athletic and versatile, so at the four or five spot, that’s supposed to be my advantage.”
Needs to work on: “I think the thing I need to get better at the most is my defensive rebounding. Offensively I rebound very well. But defensively I tend to box out and not go for the ball because I think, ‘okay, I have my man boxed out. So somebody else is gonna get it.’ But that’s the wrong mentality, especially as a big man, I’m supposed to be focused on getting rebounds.”
6’6” Guard, Freshman – Memphis TN
As the only true freshman on the team, Thomas has something his predecessors did not. There are four players around him every day that went through the exact same thing he is going through now. Instead of having to learn how to adjust to the college level on the fly, he can turn to any number of players at any point in the day and get advice on how to handle just about any situation. A tremendous athlete and heady player, Thomas will be counted on to contribute right away. His defensive ability is something the Tigers will look to utilize. His strength and athleticism should allow him to become a reliable rebounder on the both the offensive and defensive end.
Primary role, best part of game: “Offensively, the coaches want me to drive to the hole, use my athleticism. The whole summer I was known as a defensive player, just locking down the high ranked, high level (high school all-star) players. So they want me to guard the best players, wings… any position, 1-4. They want me to just be everywhere on the court.”
Needs to work on: “Right now, I just need to learn about the whole college level. I have to continue to learn every day. And I have to be able to take a lot of criticism., especially being the only freshman on the team. It’s going to come to me though. I’ll be ready.”
6’4” Guard, Sophomore – Memphis TN
Crawford was billed as a knock-down shooter but rarely lived up to that billing in his first season for the Tigers. However, many were surprised by his passing skills and ability to the lead the team; he was counted on to play point guard on quite a few occasions. He also became the team’s primary lockdown defender, often assigned to guard the opposition’s best player. With Jackson often looking to score from the point guard position, Crawford’s ability to run the offense when he is on the floor will be key.
Primary role, best part of game: “My main role on the team is to be the lockdown defender. To hold and contain the other team’s best player. That’s what they want me to do..”
Needs to work on: “More consitent shooting. I shot 29 percent from 3-point range last year. That’s terrible. They want me to be a consistent shooter, and also work on my explosiveness, getting to the rim, stop settling for jump shots all the time.”
6’9” Forward, Senior – Atlanta GA
Witherspoon’s career has been about as enigmatic as it can possibly get. Though he has never consistently delivered, his talent has never been questioned. With the size of a power forward and ball-handling ability of a point guard, it’s hard to believe that he hasn’t become an All-American. But lack of consistency and off the court issues have led to tempered expectations from fans and coaches alike. With the depth and talent on this year’s roster, Witherspoon will only be asked to fill a limited role, and anything he gives the team will likely be considered a bonus. However, if he manages to display the type of pay he is capable with moderate regularity, it could make Memphis even better than most pundits expect.
Primary role, best part of game: “I’m just a versatile basketball player. I’m able to do a lot of the things to keep me out on the floor longer, and I’m able to help my team in different ways.
Needs to work on: “Just playing hard on every possession. A lot of times I take plays off, and that’s what hurts.”
6’3” Guard, Senior – New Orleans LA
Carmouche provided a leadership role last year that was probably a bit underrated. Surrounded by a contingent of unpredictable freshmen, he was the model of consistency. Knocking down key shots in pressure situations and providing solid defense, the University of New Orleans transfer added some stability to an otherwise inconsistent roster. Late in the year as some of the younger players started to step up and become a more involved in the offense, Carmouche found a way to stay relevant without getting in anyone’s way. As one of only two seniors on the team, Carmouche will be asked to provide a steady presence over a still young team.
Primary role, best part of game: “I feel like I’m a good all around player. I think if I stay healthy, you get everything you want out of a player from me.”
Needs to work on: “Just leading more, being more vocal.”
6’10” Forward, Junior – Chicago IL
Simpson is a Junior College transfer who will be asked to provide an immediate contribution to a thin frontcourt. With Tarik Black being the only other real big man available to start the season, Simpson’s efforts will be crucial, especially if Black is unable to avoid the kind of foul problems that plagued him during his freshman year. In preseason workouts, he has not been as aggressive as coaches would like, and that will need to change as the year goes on.
Primary role, best part of game: ”Scoring in the low post, and blocking shots. I have to be more aggressive on the rebounding side.”
Needs to work on: “Talking on D. And I need to work on learning the offense”
6’2” Guard, Baltimore MD
Once thought of us as simply part of the package deal required to sign his brother Will, Barton was a critical piece of last year’s freshman-laden team. Whereas Jackson is a scorer in a point guard’s body, Antonio is more of a conventional floor leader who excels in getting others involved in the offense. A capable shooter as well, The Baltimore native hit some big shots down the stretch last season and will be counted on to make open perimeter jumpers this year as well.
Primary role, Best part of game: “Facilitating.”
Needs to work on: “My attitude. Sometimes I get mad out on the court, and that takes away from my overall game. It’s just mental. I need to lock in sometimes and let some of my bad plays go.”
6’5” Forward/Guard, Junior – Killeen TX
Stephens was an afterthought in Pastner’s first recruiting class, a last minute addition who has turned out to be a steal for the Tigers. He is a tremendous athlete whose dunks always seem to come at just the right time to energize the team and the crowd. He is a bundle of energy and effort, and witnessing his attitude tends to make his teammates play with fire and purpose.
Primary role, Best part of game: “feel like my strong point is… forcing the ball into the hole. Throwing the ball through the rim vigorously with a ton of force. Ferociously. Being angry at the rim and trying to rip it off of the backboard.”
Needs to work on: “I think I need to get better at being confident and shooting the basketball.”
JOSH PASTNER, Coach
This is Josh Pastner’s third year as head coach of the Tigers, and fans are expecting his team to make a big splash in the posteason this time around. Jack Murphy is the lone returning assistant, but the addition of Luke Walton and Damon Stoudamire brings a wealth of NBA playing experience that can only help the growth of these young players. New strength and conditioning coach, or as he prefers to be called,”life changer,” Frank Matrisciano will be doing all he can to ensure that a fast, athletic team will take advantage of their physical edge over lesser foes.
What the players will have learned from last season: “Every possession you have to play hard. Players now understand that. In high school you could take a possession off, take a quarter off, and still win. At this level you can’t do that. At my house last year when we were watching the selection show, a couple of players came up to me and said, ‘Coach we know what you mean now that every game means something. Because every game or two that you lose affects seeding.’ It’s not about our opponent, it’s about us and our effort.”
Michael Jones is the Tiger basketball beat writer for MemphiSport. You can follow him via Twitter @MemphisMJ.
Photo by Joe Murphy