To get an idea of what Memphis might look like this season, go back to 2011--12, to a different group of Tigers: Missouri played four guards, lost only four regular-season games and was the second-most-efficient offensive team of the last 10 years, according to kenpom.com.
Memphis is hoping for similar results this season from its four-guard group. It helps that all four are seniors, including transfer Michael Dixon, who was a sixth man on that 2011--12 Mizzou team. He will be joined in the backcourt by Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford. Says coach Josh Pastner, "We will play them together as long as they are willing to stick their noses in and get defensive rebounds."
Unlike that Missouri team, these Tigers aren't going with four guards out of necessity. Pastner has a talented, albeit young, group of frontcourt players, including 6' 9" sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin and 6' 8" freshman forward Austin Nichols, one of the nation's top recruits. Memphis can go with a more traditional lineup when needed, but it will start small, play as fast it can and see what happens.
"We don't need one individual to run our system," says Pastner. "Three of those four guys [Dixon being the exception] had over 100 assists last year, and we preach that the open man is the go-to man."
Jackson is the most complete player of the quartet, a standout defender who led the Tigers in scoring (13.6 ppg), assists (4.8) and three point percentage (44.7) a season ago. Early in his career he was someone who, in his words, "missed some opportunities to be that leader we needed." Now, he says, "I know the right things to say, when to be positive and [how to have] the right demeanor around my young teammates."
Jackson is the key if the Tigers are going to live up to expectations that are anything but small.
Q&A with Josh Pastner
SI.com: You often get mentioned as a candidate when big jobs come open, flattering or annoying?
Pastner: Tremendously flattering. I recognize I got a great break here at Memphis, that if I were at any other school at that time I wouldn't be head coach at Memphis. There are so many coaches out there who are better than me who haven't gotten that kind of opportunity. When I was an assistant coach I tried to get involved in jobs at San Francisco and Rice and Texas Southern and Prairie View. I didn't change; nothing made me a better candidate. I was just in the right place at the right time, and about 150 people turned [Memphis] down and so at the last minute they turned to me. I am humbled by that and won't forget it.
SI.com: So you don't think the new teams or holdovers will have some sort of advantage because of their institutional knowledge?
Pastner: I think basketball is different than football, which has way more secrets. In basketball, everyone knows everyone's calls. They hear the calls from the bench and can steal them and adjust. In basketball there just aren't too many secrets. . . . Everyone knows what everyone is running. If you are playing a zone defense and the team you are playing doesn't make shots, it is a great zone. If they make shots it is a horrible zone defense. Basketball can be pretty simple like that.
SI.com: You had the nation's second best recruiting class, how do you handle the outsized expectations that now follow heralded freshmen?
Pastner: As a collective unit, we have a very good freshmen class but like most freshmen they have a ways to go. I've told everyone in the city that nobody is one-and-done; there are going to be ups and downs. I am being honest and managing expectations because we have good, talented freshmen, but there are not instant gratification kids. Look, I want them all to be one and done, but I tell them and the fans like it is, and if someone is not ready, if there is a process where they have learn the game and understand the speed of the game, they have to prepare for that. I tell people not to think that there is anything wrong with it being hard for freshmen. It is supposed to be hard.
SI.com: How do you convince the freshmen, many of who have unrealistic ideas about what there first year should look like, to be focused on the right things and just work?
Pastner: This year I've been fortunate to have Joe [Jackson] who is one of the most scrutinized players in the history of Memphis basketball. Joe has allowed me to use him as an example of how his struggles in his first year were caused in large part by the people and things he listened to on the outside. What other people were saying and telling him infiltrated his mind and caused him clutter and caused him not to play up to the ability I demanded. His freshman and sophomore years, at times I benched him because he was listening to the wrong people. He stopped doing that and it freed his mind up and he listened to the coaches and he played better. It has been a blessing for me and for these young guys to have a veteran like Joe willing to share that experience and be honest about his mistakes.