Depth, Size, Range
A 64-point win over a team that should be playing Division III basketball is hardly a measuring stick for what’s ahead for the 2010-11 Memphis Tigers. The team’s national ranking (19th by the AP) has more to do with the reputation of Josh Pastner’s second recruiting class than it does with on-court performance by the squad’s veterans. But Friday night’s win seemed to foreshadow elements that weren’t so visible last season. Three elements, in particular, may have the experts talking four months from now.
Pastner would never admit it, but his thin roster last season made his adjustment to head coaching a little easier than it would have been had he been forced to distribute minutes among 10 or 12 capable players. When your rotation is limited to seven scholarship players, the only thing that forces a substitution is foul trouble.
Those days are over. Against Centenary last Friday, 11 Tiger players played at least 13 minutes. (Last season, only seven players averaged as many as 10 minutes per game, and five of them averaged 25.) Looking at the box score, you could arrange two completely separate five-man rotations, each of them capable of competing in Conference USA this season: (1) Joe Jackson, Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, Angel Garcia, and Will Coleman; (2) Antonio Barton, Charles Carmouche, Chris Crawford, D.J. Stephens, and Tarik Black. (These two units don’t include Drew Barham, who played 19 minutes against the Gents.)
“We don’t have a selfish person on this team,” said Coleman after Friday’s win. The ball seemed to deflect from one Tiger player to another as Memphis attacked a desperate zone defense from the undermanned Gents. And reporters found themselves checking uniform numbers to see who scored last, or who grabbed the most recent rebound. Last season, Elliot Williams led the Tigers in scoring in each of their first eight games. Mark this down: no Tiger this winter will match such a streak. The Tigers will likely have at least six players pace the team in scoring over the course of the campaign.
“I’ve got help down low, as far as rebounding and scoring inside,” added Coleman. “I’m happy for Tarik.” The senior center was speaking of his freshman teammate, Tarik Black, a few months removed from his playing days at Ridgeway High School. Black stands an inch shorter than the 6’9” Coleman, but actually outweighs his older teammate by seven pounds (252). With Angel Garcia fully recovered from his knee woes, the Tigers could put a front line on the floor that averages almost 6’10”. Should Pastner decide to add the 6’9” Witherspoon to this mix, Memphis would have its biggest lineup in years.
Garcia drained a pair of deep treys against Centenary, but recognizes the importance of contributing inside and outside for this team. “I want to do both,” said Garcia after the opening win. “When we play small teams, I’ll go down low. I need to be ready for everything. If the corner’s open, I can roll to the outside.”
Pastner’s decision (announced Saturday) to redshirt freshman Hippolyte Tsafack (6’8”, 231) says a lot about his view of the roster’s depth, and the strength of the big men he can rotate in the post. And with a combined 10 fouls to give, look for Coleman and Black to flex muscle in ways the 2009-10 squad never could.
Last year’s Tigers had three consistent threats from beyond the three-point stripe: Williams, Doneal Mack, and Roburt Sallie. Witherspoon hit 43 percent of his long-range shots, but took only 79 of them in 34 games. Friday night, Antonio Barton, Carmouche, and Crawford combined to hit all 10 of their three-point attempts. Garcia is an oversized marksman from long range, Barham is on the roster largely because of his shooting touch, and Will Barton is a better shooter than his 0-for-5 debut would suggest. (Witherspoon didn’t attempt a trey against the Gents.) That’s six players capable of hitting the most dangerous, game-swinging shot in basketball.
The big news over the weekend, of course, was Pastner’s dismissal of prized recruit Jelan Kendrick, whose disciplinary problems proved to be too significant to hide, especially on a team with so many players ready and able to take the vacated playing time. The irony is that Kendrick’s removal from the roster is one less piece for Pastner to consider as he formulates his rotation system for the season ahead. But that’s where the similarities end between his rookie year as the Tiger head coach and this brand-new season, one where his options seem to be as unlimited as the potential of his young team.