The parallel is too profound to ignore. Two Conference USA championship games, separated precisely by six years. In each contest, a freshman point guard goes to the foul line with a chance to win a bid to the NCAA tournament for the Memphis Tigers. If Joe Jackson (in 2011) had an advantage of seven seconds left on the clock (time had expired for Darius Washington in 2005), he also had to take his shots on the home floor of his opponent. Washington missed two of his three shots and collapsed to the FedExForum floor in tears. Jackson made both of his, earning MVP honors for the tournament and a hall pass for 31 pre-tournament games considered a disappointment by most Memphis fans. What a difference two free throws can make.
The 2010-11 Tigers were on the verge of being remembered collectively in much the same way Jackson would have been had the C-USA tournament unfolded differently. They were a group packed with talent and press clippings, but underwhelming after the games tipped off. A team that entered the season ranked among the country’s top 20 came up short against power-conference headliners on its schedule (Kansas, Georgetown, Tennessee) then stumbled against longtime C-USA weaklings (SMU, Rice, East Carolina). Its lone preseason all-conference selection — junior Wesley Witherspoon — missed 12 games, some due to a lingering knee injury, others punishment for behavior that would have been considered immature for his freshman teammates. These Tigers had no rhythm, a scattered identity (at last count, 17 starting lineups used by coach Josh Pastner), and no true star. (You have to go back 20 years to find a Tiger team with a rebounding leader with as few as Tarik Black’s 5.0 per game this season. You need 30 years to find a leading scorer with a figure lower than Will Barton’s 12.3. Neither the ’81 nor the ’91 team played in the NCAA tournament.)
But then came El Paso and what can only be described as a team’s collective maturation. The Tigers beat a solid Southern Miss squad for the third time this winter. They beat East Carolina handily, just nine days after getting whipped by the Pirates in Greenville. Then the epic 17-4 run to catch and defeat UTEP for the tournament championship. The win — the Tigers’ 25th of the season — gained merely a 12th seed in the Big Dance (an indication of how far the team’s national standing had fallen). But even when matched up against a top-20 foe — Pastner’s alma mater, Arizona — the Tigers were a blocked shot away from overtime. Whatever shortcomings this squad may have carried in the skills department, they can be said to have found plenty of heart when the games mattered most.
With the end of one season, speculation begins for what’s to come. We live in an age of one-year wonders across the college basketball landscape. The biggest headlines belong to the likes of Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall. (Among those five, the closest to win a national championship was Rose, and we know his story.) The presumption that accumulating “freshman phenoms” was enough to play deep into the NCAAs proved faulty in the Tigers’ case. (Last Friday was the Memphis program’s 55th NCAA tournament game, but the first in which four freshmen started.) How many of the freshmen will return for a sophomore season? Will Wesley Witherspoon put this embattled season — and any friction with the Tiger coaching staff — behind him, and rebuild his pro credentials? Will Melrose star Adonis Thomas join the returning cast and make a difference beyond recruiting rankings? As with most college programs this time of year, the questions outnumber any answers.
Here’s an attempt to answer one question: “Is Pastner the right guy?” Dana Kirk and John Calipari each needed three seasons to take the Tigers to the NCAA tournament. Still shy of his 34th birthday, Pastner has done it in two. He needed every ounce of that 17-4 run against UTEP two Saturdays ago, but he took the Memphis program where it’s expected to be every March. Pastner earned some criticism this season for his team’s uninspired play at SMU (at least in the second half) and at UTEP near the end of the regular season. He also earned a healthy dose of credit for making his young squad believe it could beat that same Miner team to reach the promised land.
Rare is the 21st-century college basketball team that can be considered seasoned. Memphis fans may have seen their last senior-laden group of players. But there’s something to be said for watching a team (and its coach, for that matter) grow.