Josh Pastner learned last year that relying almost exclusively on first-year players -- even ones with talent -- isn't an instant recipe for success. Memphis limped through the C-USA portion of its schedule and suffered embarrassing losses to SMU, Rice and East Carolina.
But then Joe Jackson started living up to his promise and Memphis reeled off three consecutive victories in El Paso to win the C-USA Tournament and earn the league's automatic bid to the NCAAs, where the Tigers lost to Arizona at the buzzer in the first round.
Pastner will once again deal with high expectations this season. "We have 99 percent of our guys back, but we're not going to worry about other people's predictions," he says. "We have to earn it."
Pastner is most excited about 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Tarik Black, who exceeded expectations as a freshman. After entering college as a borderline top-50 recruit, Blake is now projected as a future first-round pick. He averaged 9.1 points and 5.0 rebounds. He'll start in the middle and will be backed up by Stan Simpson, a 6-10 former Illinois player who spent last season averaging 14.0 points and 8.5 rebounds in junior college.
"I think Tarik can be a terrific force inside, but the key to that is going to be us making shots from the perimeter," Pastner says. "We're going to need to be a good 3-point shooting team because otherwise the middle will be too clogged."
Memphis will use two versatile wings at the other forward positions -- Wesley Witherspoon and Adonis Thomas. Witherspoon, a 6-9 senior, battled injuries and attitude issues and was buried on the bench for parts of last season. Still, he's talented and with proper focus he could be an important piece to Pastner's puzzle. Thomas brings a winning pedigree, strong leadership and the all-around talent to be Memphis' latest one-and-done candidate.
Leading Memphis' backcourt is Jackson, who started at point guard for USA Basketball's U19 team this summer. Jackson's backcourt mate is Will Barton, a 6-6 sophomore who also experienced ups and downs last season but emerged as the Tigers' leading scorer. He averaged 12.3 points and 4.9 rebounds while showing a unique ability to create his own shot.
"Will being a year older is going to benefit us," Pastner says. "He's more mature and more focused now, but that's the case for all of our guys."
Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton and Charles Carmouche provide depth in the backcourt.
While struggling to a 10-6 finish in C-USA last season, the Tigers showed that having more talent than everybody in the league guarantees nothing. Everything was new for everybody -- from Pastner to Jackson to Barton to Black. But now the coach is a year older and so are the top six scorers, all of whom return. Memphis should win C-USA, earn another trip to the NCAA tournament and, perhaps, the first Sweet 16 of Pastner's young career.
Ferrakohn Hall (F, Jr.): Transfer from Seton Hall will be eligible in December.
Stan Simpson (F, Jr.): Skilled, junior college transfer.
Adonis Thomas (F/G, Fr.): The star of Memphis' recruiting class should start from Day 1. He'll be able to guard multiple positions, play either forward spot and help solve the Tigers' rebounding troubles.