Originally written on Midwest Sports Fans  |  Last updated 10/10/11

Our third and final Non-BCS Watch List team from Conference USA just might be the best team from outside of the six major conferences this season.

Memphis Tigers

Looking Back

Josh Pastner and the Tigers expected to rely heavily on a talented freshman class heading into last season, but injuries and unexpected departures led to an even heavier burden being placed on the youthful core of the team.  That youth showed itself at times over the course of a 25-10 season, but team pulled together to win the conference tournament and took Arizona down to the wire in the first round of the NCAAs.  Pastner now has 49 wins in two years at the helm, along with a battle-tested group of sophomores who are ready to take the next step.

Memphis finished 87th in the Pomeroy Ratings, their lowest finish in quite some time.  Offensively, they had a sharp increase in their possessions per game thanks to a more uptempo attack, but a marked increase in turnover percentage, coupled with a huge dip in three-point shooting, dropped their offensive efficiency to 128th.  On defense, they did a nice job of limiting their opponents’ effective field goal percentage and finished in the Top 25 for both block and steal percentage.  However, they allowed too many offensive rebounds and put their opponents on the line too often.

The lone departure from last season’s final roster is big man Will Coleman, who played just under 20 minutes per game and helped out primarily on the glass.

This Year’s Tigers

I’m going to tackle the sophomore class first, but just to warn you, this may take a bit.  Will Barton led the team in scoring as a freshman and was the team’s lone double figure scorer at 12.3 points per game.  He finished second on the team in rebounds and steals, and his 2.8 assists per game were good for third on the squad.  Barton took nearly 400 shots in his first season, but his 147 three-point attempts were too many for a guy converting at just a 26.5 percent clip from long range.  Still, Barton made better than 52 percent from two-point range and has room to improve at getting to the line.  There’s no questioning Barton’s talent, and it will be interesting to see how he has evolved and improved his game over the summer.

One guy whose game was on full display this summer was guard Joe Jackson, who led Team USA in assists for the U-19 team at the World Championships.  Jackson also averaged 11.6 points for that squad and finished second in free throw attempts.  As a freshman last season, he finished second on the team in scoring (9.9 ppg) and assists (3.1 apg) in less than 22 minutes per game.  Jackson’s usage rate was 52nd in the nation, but he posted a Top 100 assist rate and drew nearly six fouls per 40 minutes, the latter of which led to a solid free throw rate.  The biggest blemish on Jackson’s season was an ugly turnover rate, but I think the Team USA experience gives Jackson some great momentum and confidence heading into his sophomore season.

On the inside, Tarik Black is the team’s lone returning force down low.  He led the team in rebounds and blocked shots and finished third in scoring despite playing just 22.6 minutes per game.  Foul trouble played a role in holding down his playing time as evidenced by his 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes.  However, his offensive rebound percentage ranked in the Top 40 and was somehow better than his defensive rebound percentage.  Black posted a strong block percentage and drew plenty of fouls.  He also connected on 52.8 percent of his shots, and if he can get his free throw percentage up into the mid-60s, the skills are there to average close to 15 points per game.

Guards Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford round out the sophomore class.  Barton, the less heralded of the two brothers, averaged 8.2 points and hit 44.2 percent from beyond the arc.  He posted a terrific overall offensive rating and will continue to be a key member of the rotation.  Crawford led the team in assists and steals to go with 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds.  Poor shooting and an inflated turnover rate held his overall efficiency numbers down, but his experience last year will only benefit him as a sophomore.

Six-foot-nine swingman Wesley Witherspoon missed nine games last season following knee surgery.  In under 23 minutes per game, he still managed to score 9.0 points and grab 4.3 boards.  He shot the ball well from both two- and three-point range and got to the line 93 times compared to 125 field goal attempts.  Witherspoon’s overall efficiency numbers were similar to his breakout season in 2009-10, and at full strength, he becomes a difficult matchup for opponents due to his size and skill set.

Senior guard Charles Carmouche is the other key member of the rotation to return.  He canned nearly 40 percent from downtown and averaged 7.4 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.3 steals.  Carmouche will continue to get open looks from the outside thanks to multiple talented penetrators on the Memphis roster.

D.J. Stephens and Drew Barham also return for the Tigers.  Stephens played just 11.2 minutes per game but made 64.1 percent of his shots and posted solid offensive rebounding numbers.  Barham played sparingly but wasn’t shy about pulling the trigger once he entered the game.

After a knee injury forced him to take a medical redshirt, 6-foot-8 forward Hippolyte Tsafack is back at full strength.  He should help out with rebounding and shot blocking thanks to his explosive leaping ability.

The top newcomer is freshman Adonis Thomas, who chose to play his college ball close the home.  The 6-foot-6 forward has the versatility to punish defenders either off the dribble or down low and is a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.  Thomas is a potential NBA lottery pick who is expected to start right away, so enjoy him at the college level while you can.

The other two new faces should help bolster a relatively thin frontcourt.  After transferring from Seton Hall, Ferrakohn Hall will be eligible in mid-December.  He doesn’t play much with his back to the basket, but he gives Pastner another experienced player to rotate up front.  Six-foot-ten big man Stan Simpson was one of the top junior college prospects after averaging 12.6 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks last season.  He originally committed to Illinois out of high school, but he provides another skilled big man for the Tigers should they opt to go with a bigger lineup than they were forced to play much of last season.

2011-12 Outlook

I’ve really been impressed with the job Pastner has done since taking the reigns from John Calipari, and with a more seasoned team, it will be interesting to see how far the Tigers can go this season.  There is no shortage of talent on the roster, which gives him the ability to juggle his lineups and create mismatches.

As has become customary, Memphis has a number of challenging games on the non-conference slate.  They play a talented Belmont team in the state-side portion of the Maui Invitational, then open with Michigan in the tournament’s first round.  A potential matchup with Duke looms in round two, so the Tigers will be tested early.  They also face road dates at Miami, Louisville, and Georgetown and play Xavier at home mid-season.

This team is loaded in the backcourt and on the wing with Will and Antonio Barton, Jackson, Witherspoon, Crawford and Thomas, who should win conference Freshman of the Year honors.  Outside of Black, there are some question marks up front, but the combination of Simpson, Hall, and Tsafack should be able to get the job done. Memphis will be ranked in many preseason Top 10 lists, and I expect them to earn that ranking along with a Top Three seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Follow me on Twitter (@andybottoms) for more thoughts on college hoops, and check out the latest edition of the Bottoms Line podcast.

* – Josh Pastner image source: BallinIsAHabit.net

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