Adam Walsh enters basketball purgatory

Gathering his team around at the start of practice, Adam Walsh explained how Memphis had called to request practice film of his Centenary basketball team.

“Memphis is worried about us,’’ Walsh joked to his players.

“And then one of our freshmen said, ‘They’d better be worried about us,’’’ Walsh recalled.

The idea that mighty Memphis, ranked 19th in the preseason, might be afraid of a small school in Shreveport would be funny on a normal day.

That the freshman offering the trash talk was a non-scholarship player inked to play at the Division III level makes it all the more comical.

But such is life at Centenary, where the Gents reside in a strange basketball purgatory. This season they are members of the Summit League, a Division I team with nonconference dates against the likes of the Tigers, LSU and Tulane.

Next season, they will join the American Southwest Conference, a Division III league, where they’ll square up against the likes of Hardin-Simmons, Concordia and Texas Lutheran in what will then be a 16-team conference. Faced with a dwindling endowment that had dropped 20 percent and the need to find budget cuts totaling $1.5 million, the alma mater of Boston Celtics legend Robert Parish made the decision to drop down in divisions.

What may have been a fiscally responsible and sensible decision was nonetheless the cause of much upheaval in the athletics department. Some staff members within the department left, including -- eventually -- men’s basketball coach Greg Gary, who waffled and wavered before finally taking a job as an assistant at Duquesne in May.

Five players bolted as well.

Walsh, all of 31 and Gary’s assistant for the past three years, took over the crazy situation. He is not just the head coach now, but the assistant athletic director in charge of compliance, game-day management and the department’s SAAC adviser as well.

He has a team with eight new faces, all of them non-scholarship players recruited to play Division III ball.

Except this season they’ll play D-1.

“I’m blessed to have this opportunity, but in a way I feel like I’m going to get two first years,’’ Walsh said. “I’m going to get a little bit of a do-over next year.’’

The grounded Walsh, who got his start as a manager at High Point and climbed the coaching rungs from Division II to junior college, isn’t trying to sugarcoat things. He has set realistic goals for his team -- he’d like the Gents to qualify for the Summit League tournament -- but all the while has challenged them to do more than what is expected.

“My motto around the office is if we don’t set the bar high, we can’t expect much out of our players,’’ Walsh said. “We’d like to finish in the middle of the pack and be conference tournament-eligible. We never have before, so why not go out with a bang?’’

Really, there is plenty to play for. The scholarship guys are all transfer-eligible, meaning they could play immediately for another Division I school next season. This, in effect, is an audition year.

And the newcomers just brought in will never have the chance to play the caliber of competition they're facing this season, and can only be better for it next season.

But to Walsh, playing with pride and showing character has even more far-reaching implications.

“We want to leave a good impression, but I’m more interested in what this does for these guys 20, 30 years down the road,’’ Walsh said. “I tell them all the time that I’m trying to help them grow and to be able to handle such a big challenge is a part of the deal. This will help them when they face problems later in life.’’

For now, though, the problems come in the form of Will Barton and Joe Jackson and Wesley Witherspoon. The Gents will be served up as home-opening fodder for Memphis on Nov. 12.

“The good thing is, there is no doom and gloom with these guys at all,’’ Walsh said. “Everyone was nodding their heads, saying Memphis better be worried. It’s funny, I know, but it’s also the attitude that they’ve got to have. If they didn’t think that way, then I’d be worried.’’