“It’s just been one of those years.” — Josh Pastner, February 28, 2015
When you look back at the 1999-2000 Memphis Tigers — the last team to miss both the NCAA and NIT tournaments — it’s striking to consider the talent interim coach Johnny Jones had at his disposal. Three starters for that team — Marcus Moody, Kelly Wise, and Earl Barron — are in the program’s 1,000-point club. Wise and Barron were central figures in the first two seasons with John Calipari at the helm (seasons that ended in the NIT, but at Madison Square Garden, and with the championship trophy in 2002). Barron is currently a member of the Phoenix Suns, for crying out loud.
Yet 1999-2000 — in this part of the college basketball universe — was just one of those years, the Tigers finishing 15-16, a fan base wondering if Larry Finch took a program’s magic with him when he was fired three years earlier.
Many Tiger fans will look back to November 12, 2014, and call it the date this season died, when the University of Memphis took the floor for an exhibition game with Christian Brothers University . . . and lost. Sure, Memphis coach Josh Pastner was experimenting with an unfamiliar roster. And sure, the Buccaneers have nothing to lose and a city’s attention to gain whenever they take the floor at FedExForum. This was a lightning strike bound to happen some November. Just happened to be the one when most Memphians got their first look at Kedren Johnson, Trahson Burrell, and Calvin Godfrey. There’s stumbling out of the gate, and then there’s going belly up before ever entering the gate.
This team had its moments. Sweeping the defending national champions for a second straight season — find me another team to have accomplished this — will be the closest thing to a “legacy” the 2014-15 Tigers can claim. But those were two of only three wins (in 15 games) against teams with an RPI among the nation’s top 100. These Tigers never found a competitive punch, not one strong enough to threaten an NCAA tournament team. Not one strong enough, it turns out, to impress the NIT selection committee.
Better days are ahead, surely. There are more than 300 Division I programs that would relish having Austin Nichols as its centerpiece for the 2015-16 season. (This presumes the all-AAC forward returns for his junior season.) There are more than 300 Division I programs that would relish a McDonald’s All-American among its incoming freshman class, as the Tigers have in Dedric Lawson. Imagine Shaq Goodwin playing an entire season with the fire that helped him grab 23 rebounds in the Tigers’ first game against Temple. Imagine Johnson being in, you know, basketball condition.
A long offseason awaits, the program’s longest in 15 years. There is a faction of Tiger fans who believe Pastner is very much a part of the problem, that the still-young coach is unable to match tactics with elite counterparts, that he cannot develop players into a cohesive, threatening unit. If you measure Pastner’s value solely on the past winter, that faction would be correct. Signed through the 2016-17 season, Pastner is likely to be back, and he’ll be answering questions about this long, cold winter on the hottest days in August. There really is no offseason with this program, is there?
“You can get us now,” said Pastner after the Tigers’ final home game last month, “but with our nucleus, and what we have coming in, the future’s extremely bright.” What’s a missed postseason every 15 years?
• On March 8th, Shawne Williams became the eighth former Tiger to play in 300 NBA games. Conference USA’s Freshman of the Year in 2006, Williams is now suiting up with the Detroit Pistons, his seventh pro team since being chosen by the Indiana Pacers with the 17th pick of the 2006 draft. Among the eight Tigers with 300 NBA games under their belts, only two played as many as three seasons of college ball: Elliot Perry (4) and Vincent Askew (3). The others (and the number of seasons they were Tigers): Larry Kenon (1), Penny Hardaway (2), Lorenzen Wright (2), Derrick Rose (1), and Tyreke Evans (1). Rodney Carney played in 299 NBA games and Chris Douglas-Roberts has played in 222, though none since January when the Boston Celtics waived him.