Hoop Thoughts: Josh Pastner, Mark Few size up hoops season ahead

Friday August 9th, 2013

Josh Pastner-led Memphis will make its debut in the newly-formed American Athletic Conference this fall.
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Summertime isn't over, but the high tide of summer recruiting has finally ebbed. Last month, every college basketball head coach and his assistants crisscrossed the country, braving connections and puddle jumpers and wee-hours hotel check-ins in hopes of landing the Next Big Thing. But while the coaches spent July chasing high school recruits, I was chasing coaches. Last week, I gave you part one of my visits with selected head coaches. Today comes part two, with the final installment arriving next week. In hopes that my world weary Hoop Thinkers are relaxing on a beach and not some stinky gymnasium somewhere, I herewith provide you with a little summer reading. Enjoy.

Travis Ford, Oklahoma State

As I sat next to Ford in the bleachers of Rancho High School in Las Vegas, site of the Adidas Super 64 tournament, he looked like the guy who just made a killing at the craps table. (In other words, not like me.) In an era when so many young players bolt for the NBA at the first sign of daylight, Oklahoma State is extremely fortunate that All-America point guard Marcus Smart decided to return to Stillwater for his sophomore season. Ford knows how lucky he is, but he told me he wasn't surprised by Smart's unconventional move. "He's very much his own man," Ford said. "He doesn't have a big entourage. A lot of times it's outside influences who are pushing guys to the NBA. All these people were saying he should come out now because next year's draft is so strong. His exact quote to me was, 'Those people must not believe in me too much.' "

As Ford and I talked, Smart was across town participating as one of just two invited collegians at USA Basketball's national team camp. It was affirmation of his place as a big man on campus, yet he was still very much the wide-eyed child. "Marcus couldn't believe that those [NBA] guys knew who he was. He was all excited that John Wall came up to him and said his name," Ford said. It's exactly the kind of educational experience Smart came back for. Ford knows that Smart doesn't need to rework his game during the off-season, but he still has much room to improve. Said Ford, "I've challenged him to get a little bit better at everything."

With Smart back in the fold, Oklahoma State will return all but one starter from the team that went 24-9 and lost to Oregon in the Round of 32 at the NCAA tournament. (That lone lost starter, 6-foot-11 senior center Philip Jurick, averaged just 17 minutes per game.) Nor is Smart the only future pro. Markel Brown, a 6-3 senior, was essentially tied with Smart as the team's leading scorer last season. Brown is an exceptional athlete who has vastly improved his outside shooting and was among the collegians invited to compete at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas last month.

Le'Bryan Nash, meanwhile, is also poised for a breakout season. The 6-7 junior was a highly-regarded recruit coming out of Dallas, but he has been plagued by inconsistency his first two seasons. Nash has good size and strength for his position, but he tends to drift too much on the perimeter. Ford has been working on convincing Nash to use his size more next season. "He really understands what's going to get him to the next level," Ford said. "He's realizing now, 'I'm big and strong. I can't be stopped five feet in.' When he came here, he probably thought he was one and done, but he has been very coachable and shown a lot of maturity."

With so many quality vets returning, it's unlikely that any of the Cowboys' freshmen will make an impact, but there will be one critical addition in 6-5 junior forward Brian Williams. After missing the first 18 games because of a broken wrist last season, Williams, who averaged 12 points per game in conference play as a freshman, was mostly a marginal player down the stretch, but he should be ready to make a greater impact this winter. Ford described Williams as a high-energy player as well as the team's best on-ball defender. "He can guard every position," Ford said. "He's the reason I think we'll be better."

When Smart announced he was returning, a lot of people predicted that Oklahoma State would end Kansas' nine-year streak as champs in the Big 12. I told Ford I was skeptical of that claim even before the Jayhawks landed the top high school player in the country, Andrew Wiggins. The coach did not disagree. "Until somebody finishes ahead of Kansas, I'd pick 'em every year, too," he said. That aside, Ford has no intention of trying to tamp down the hype. "I understand that people think we're going to be really good, but that's what you want," he said. "I just have to make sure our players understand that we haven't done anything yet."

Josh Pastner, Memphis

If there is one program that best exemplifies the vagaries of revolving-door transfers, it is Memphis. Under Pastner, the program has a sterling academic record; 10 players on the current roster, including five juniors, will have their undergraduate degrees by the time the season starts. The flip side to that is the NCAA rule that allows students who earn their degrees with eligibility remaining to transfer to another school and play right away. Two of the Tigers' most important players from last season, 6-2 guard Antonio Barton and 6-9 forward Tarik Black, took advantage of that rule and transferred to Tennessee and Kansas, respectively. Yet, when I asked Pastner about that during the Adidas Super 64, he expressed no bitterness. "They got their degrees. They did their jobs," he said. "If the rules allow a change of scenery, I'm behind them a hundred percent."

Those defections forced Pastner to hit the phones and try to recruit some transfers of his own. "I was a general manager," he quipped. He found two good ones -- David Pellom, a 6-8 forward from George Washington, and Michael Dixon, a 6-1 combo guard from Missouri. Pellom will be able to play right away thanks to the graduate rule, but Dixon's situation is trickier. He left Missouri last winter after a female student accused him of sexual assault, the second time Dixon had been accused of that in three years. Because Dixon was not enrolled at another school, he is not yet eligible to play for Memphis. The school has submitted a waiver to the NCAA in hopes he will get cleared, just as the NCAA granted a waiver that allowed former Xavier guard Dez Wells to play at Maryland last season.

When I said to Pastner that taking a player with Dixon's past was a big risk, he stood firm, pointing out that Dixon was never charged, much less prosecuted, in either instance. "We have tremendous faith in law enforcement and prosecution. In the end we trusted them," Pastner said. "All of us, myself and our administration, talked to Michael and asked some hard questions. We all believed we should give him an opportunity."

Besides Barton and Black, Memphis also lost seniors D.J. Stephens and Ferrakohn Hall, as well as Adonis Thomas, the 6-7 sophomore who foolishly left school early to turn pro, only to go undrafted. Still, the Tigers will return three talented senior guards in 6-3 Geron Johnson, 6-1 Joe Jackson and 6-4 Chris Crawford, as well as Shaq Goodwin, a 6-9 sophomore power forward. And Pastner being Pastner, the program has once again brought in a loaded freshman class, headlined by 6-8 forward Austin Nichols, who hails from Eads, Tenn., and 6-8 Connecticut native Kuran Iverson.

If the personnel changes to the roster have been rather dizzying, they pale in comparison to the whirlwind of conference realignment that has swept through college sports the last few years. Memphis accepted an invitation to join the Big East, but that league will be far different now. It's not even the Big East anymore. It's the American Athletic Conference, and if it ends up looking more like rejiggered Conference USA, that might not be such a bad thing given the way the Tigers dominated that league.

So it is with Memphis basketball these days. Easy come, easy go.

At any rate, this has the potential to be a highly entertaining team. "If Dixon is eligible, there might not be a better perimeter in the country," Pastner said. "Those are some high-level senior guards." When I asked Pastner if it might be time to dust off the old dribble-drive motion offense, he smiled like a guy who's playing with house money. "We'll make it work," he said.

Cuonzo Martin, Tennessee

Last week, in part one of my summer school review, I wrote about my visit with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, whose team is projected to take a big step forward in the Big Ten next season. The SEC equivalent is Tennessee, where Martin is entering his third season after taking over for Bruce Pearl. When I mentioned this prospect to Martin, he gave me the same answer McCaffery did: Bring it on. "The good thing is our guys already live in Knoxville, so they're used to having great exposure," Martin said. "They'll handle it because they're experienced and they have a strong bond as a team. This is one of the few teams I've been around that do a lot of things together as a team, not just with two or three guys."

The Volunteers made quite a bit of noise down the stretch last season, at one point winning nine out of 10 games, but fell just short of making the NCAA tournament. Besides seniors Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall, who were part-time starters, the Vols also bade farewell to 6-2 junior point guard Trae Golden, who transferred to Georgia Tech. Martin wouldn't come out and say it, but he didn't exactly disagree when I suggested that losing Golden would be addition by subtraction. Martin then went out and upgraded the position by signing Antonio Barton from Memphis. "He's a tough, hard-nosed guy who can make shots," Martin told me. "He's a blueprint for our team."

But the biggest reason for optimism in Knoxville is the impending return of Jeronne Maymon, the 6-7 junior who took a redshirt last season after injuring his knee. Two years ago, Maymon was UT's best player (12.7 points, 8.1 rebounds per game). Martin told me Maymon has recovered so completely that "if you watched him play, you wouldn't know he was hurt if I didn't tell you." Martin anticipates that Maymon will be a more dynamic offensive player than he was two seasons ago. Mostly, the team will really benefit from his leadership. "He's a guy who's not afraid to say things," Martin said. "He's comfortable within himself. Guys respond to him."

Maymon's absence last season was most keenly felt by 6-8 forward Jarnell Stokes, who made a splash when he matriculated to Tennessee during his senior year of high school but struggled at times during his sophomore season. "Double teams were coming at him in so many different ways," Martin said. "It took him about half the season before he realized how hard you have to go." Stokes has had a very busy summer. He participated in two of Nike's skills academies, and he played for the U.S. squad coached by Billy Donovan that won the gold medal at the Under 19 world championships in Prague.

Tennessee will also once again boast one of the real sleeper talents in college basketball in Jordan McRae. As a junior, he ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring (16.0 average) and finished runner-up in league player of the year voting to Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. McRae came to Knoxville at a rail-thin 170 pounds, and while he has since added 10 pounds of muscle, Martin would like to see him add at least another five.

When I asked Martin to give me an X factor, he mentioned 6-6 junior guard Josh Richardson. "He has one of the best pullup games I've seen in years," Martin said. "I'm trying to get him to score instinctively, to understand that this is a part of his DNA."

Unfortunately, the Volunteers' schedule next season does not include a game against their cross-state rivals. Memphis and Tennessee discontinued the series because Pastner does not want to give UT help recruiting players from his part of the state. Martin said he understands Pastner's reasoning, though he is hopeful the series will be revived in a couple of years. "I like to play the game. It's good for us and the state of Tennessee," Martin said. "What people don't realize is there have only been about four or five legit players from Memphis who came to Knoxville. Memphis is actually six hours away from us. We're a lot closer to Atlanta."

As for the freshmen, Martin told me he has high hopes for Robert Hubbs, an athletic 6-5 scoring guard from Newbern, Tenn. "When it's all said and done, he'll make money," Martin said. Beyond that, however, it doesn't look like Tennessee will have a super deep rotation. "I don't think depth is important unless you're pressing all over the place," he said. "My key guys have got to play."

The Volunteers came into the SEC tournament with an outside chance at making the NCAA tournament. They lost to Alabama in the quarterfinals and were among the first few teams left out. Deflated, they lost their first-round NIT game to Mercer. Martin told me he watched the CBS Selection Show with his players. "For me as a coach, we teach our guys about life skills. I told them, 'If this is the worst thing that happens in your life, you're going to have a great life. But they were crushed."

That disappointment should serve as motivation for a better ending in 2014. Of course, having a lot of really good players will help, too.

Mark Few, Gonzaga

When I caught up with Few at the Fab 48 tournament at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, I reminded him that we conducted this same exercise last summer in that very gym. During that conversation, he told me that redshirt center Kelly Olynyk had improved dramatically and would have a great year. ("And you didn't believe me," Few said.) In fact, Olynyk was so good that he entered the NBA draft, where he was selected 13th by the Celtics. Given that Gonzaga lost two other starters, it's fair to say the program will take a step back from the version that was ranked No. 1 at the end of last season and earned its first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Instead of being anchored up front by Olynyk and Elias Harris, Gonzaga will rely heavily on its backcourt duo of 6-2 Kevin Pangos and 6-1 Gary Bell, Jr. "We'll be more guard-oriented," Few said. "Those guys have a lot of minutes under them. They've played a lot of games and had a lot of success in big moments." Unfortunately, Bell has had a "frustrating off-season," according to Few. He has not been able to work out this summer because he is still recovering from a stress fracture in his foot that he suffered during the first half of Gonzaga's NCAA tournament loss to Wichita State. Bell also had arthroscopic surgery to clean up one of his knees.

Pangos, on the other hand, has been very active this summer while competing at the LeBron James Skills Academy as well as for the Canadian national team at the World University Games. "He's just a worker, man," Few said. "We need to get him hunting more shots. He's got to find more ways to score."

The larger question revolves around the frontcourt. That's where Przemek Karnowski, the 7-1 sophomore center from Poland who averaged just 10.7 minutes per game, comes in. Few told me that Karnowski has slimmed down to 280 pounds after arriving on campus a year ago weighing 310. He has spent the summer playing for the Polish 20-and-under team. "He'll take a big step forward. He's primed for that," Few said. "We had such a plethora of bigs last year. He was starting to develop at the end of the year. Maybe it didn't manifest itself in points and rebounds, but we saw it."

Few also has high hopes for one of his newcomers, Gerard Coleman, a 6-4 swingman who transferred from Providence and is now eligible after sitting out last season. The Zags don't have nearly the depth up front they did last season, but that does not mean Few will try to increase the tempo. "I don't know if we'll press that much," he said. "We'll spread the floor. We've got to be able to shoot at all five spots."

Debbie Downer that I am, I couldn't talk to Few about last season without bringing up the disappointing ending -- a 76-70 loss to No. 9 seed Wichita State in the Round of 32. "I don't know. Didn't I see them get Ohio State down by 20?" he said, neck stiffening. "Didn't they have Louisville down by 12 in the second half? We just ran into a really hot team. They made 14 threes against us. They made two the game before. That's just the nature of the tournament, unfortunately."

It's also the nature of expectations, but Few didn't think his team would be flying too far under the radar. "We still have high expectations of ourselves," he said. "We always do. Every year is different. Every team takes on its own identity."

Steve Alford, UCLA

After taking over for the deposed Ben Howland in April, Alford learned right away just how different his new gig is than the one he left at New Mexico. During his introductory news conference, Alford was challenged about the way he handled the case of Pierre Pierce, his former player at Iowa who was twice charged with sexual assault and eventually served 11 months in prison. Alford appeared unprepared for the question -- and it showed. Two weeks later, he had to release a statement apologizing for the way he handled that case, even though it was eight years ago. "I coached at Iowa for three more years after that happened, and I was at New Mexico for six years, and nothing was ever said. So yeah, I was surprised I got asked about it," he said. "It is what it is. I've been around that kind of thing long enough. There weren't a lot of 16-year-olds playing in front of 10,000 people every night like I was in high school."

Alford said he was also surprised to come under fire again when the details of his lucrative contract were made public. "I wake up to an article comparing my contract to Coach Wooden's. Really?" he said. "I mean, what did a car cost in 1948? What did a loaf of bread cost? It's just impossible to please everybody. If you're going to coach at UCLA, you've got to be able to handle it."

Of course, the quickest way to quiet all the carping is to win a ton of games. It's not yet clear if Alford has the personnel to make that happen, but there are some good pieces for him to work with. Two perimeter players who started on last year's Pac-12 champs are gone -- 6-6 freshman swingman Shabazz Muhammad, who was drafted 14th by the Timberwolves, and senior point guard Larry Drew II. (Junior center Josh Smith left school through the middle of last season and ended up transferring to Georgetown.) The returning roster includes the Wear twins, David and Travis, who will be fifth-year seniors, as well as 6-5 sophomore guard Jordan Adams, whose broken foot suffered in the Pac-12 tournament led the Bruins to lose to Minnesota in the Round of 64 in the NCAA tournament (which led to the firing of Ben Howland, thereby clearing the way for Alford to be brought in). Alford told me that Adams had not yet been cleared. He was only allowed to do activities that do not involve putting weight on his foot.

In the wake of Howland's firing, one of the immediate questions regarding UCLA's personnel was whether 6-9 center Tony Parker would return for his sophomore season. Alford, however, said that as far as he was concerned, there was never much doubt. "We started from day one working on that. He led us to believe he was happy," Alford said. He added that Parker has been working closely with the newly hired strength coach, which has translated into his losing close to 20 pounds.

Throw in Kyle Anderson, a 6-9 sophomore and member of my All-Glue team, and 6-4 junior Norman Powell, and Alford has a six-man veteran nucleus to build around. "All six of those guys are going to have to have good years," Alford said. "They were all instrumental in the success this team had last season. They're all going to have to show improvement."

The freshman class includes a few holdovers whom Howland recruited, most notably 6-3 freshman Zach LaVine from Bothwell, Wash. Alford described LaVine as "an extremely athletic scoring guard" who should find his way into the rotation. But the most critical -- and intriguing -- addition to the program is Bryce Alford, the coach's son, who during his senior season at La Cueva High in Albuquerque broke New Mexico's single season scoring record and was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year. Running a team is a difficult chore for any freshman, much less one at UCLA, and much, much less the son of the newly hired head coach.

Alford did not try to downplay his son's chances of winning the starting point guard spot. Nor did he sound concerned whether Bryce was ready for that awesome responsibility. "I think he is. He had one of the best seasons in the country last year," he said. "He has great vision. He can really pass the ball, but he can shoot it, so you have to guard him." When I asked Alford the inevitable question of how Bryce compares to where his dad was at the same stage, he smiled. "Well, for starters he's much more athletic. I'm sure you'll find that hard to believe," he said. "He has great feet. He's bouncier than I was. He's also bigger. I came out of high school weighing about a buck-fifty. Bryce is 180, plus he's 6-3 so he's taller than I am."

It isn't easy to step into such a high-profile, high-pressure job, but that's how these Alfords roll. One way or another, it is going to be a very interesting season in Westwood.

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