Three Big Things: Memphis

In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Memphis.

1. The 2011–12 Memphis Tigers were better than you think.

They began the season with what appeared to be a disappointing outing in Maui; in retrospect, losses to Michigan and Georgetown (and a near-loss to Tennessee) don’t look all that bad. The rest of their nonconference losses -- Murray State, Louisville, and Georgetown a second time -- were, based on what we know now, entirely forgivable. Memphis finished the C-USA season 13–3, its three losses (away to Central Florida and Southern Miss, at home to UTEP) came by a grand total of six points. The NBA-bound Will Barton was one of the best players in the country, and Memphis finished ranked No. 8 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ranks, thanks in large part to a top–15 defensive effort.

But because the Tigers lost eight games in the regular season, and because C-USA wasn’t particularly impressive, and because Memphis didn’t get any of its marquee nonconference wins when it had the opportunities -- and hey, being efficient is great, but at some point you’ve got to win the games -- Memphis received a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament. It played another efficient and dramatically underseeded team in St. Louis. Coach Rick Majerus took the Tigers to church. Memphis was bounced in its first tourney game.

If that outcome is all you remember of a college hoops season -- if a dramatic, early win-or-go-home tournament finish is the only sample you take from the year -- then, yes, the 2012 Memphis Tigers had a disappointing season. But if you look at the entire breadth of the season, and you take each data point for what it is, what you end up with -- even if you’re unwilling to be generous -- was a team that didn’t close out games particularly well, and struggled early in the year, but was nonetheless a force the majority of the time it spent on the basketball court and one of the top 15 or 20 teams in the country by the end of the season.

Which is why, despite losing Barton to the NBA draft, and despite the disappointing finishes, Memphis’ forecast is bullish. Now all the Tigers need is to break through.

2. Josh Pastner has done an excellent job with this program. It’s easy to forget that sometimes. It’s easy to wonder -- especially if you’re the kind of Memphis fan who lives and breathes the team, and dies a little bit with each loss (which is basically every Memphis fan, far as I can tell) -- if Pastner isn’t merely a great recruiter who wasn’t ready to be a head coach at the collegiate level when he replaced John Calipari three years ago. The “Josh Pastner question” was indirectly posed last week by the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Kyle Veazy, who asked his Twitter followers which statistic meant more to them: That Pastner was No. 2 in the country in 2013 recruiting ranks or 0–2 in the NCAA tournament?

Veazey received plenty of responses, and many seemed reasonable, but the Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy brought people some valuable historical perspective and reminded people just what was left when Calipari left the job to head to Kentucky in 2010:

There is no correct answer, of course. If people want to have unreasonable expectations regarding the athletic teams they follow, that certainly is their right.

The logical answer is that the recruiting matters so much more at this point. Pastner is building a program. He was left with a great tradition and magnificent support but no elite players and few serviceable ones.

However, when forward Kuran Iverson of Waynesboro, Va., announced Tuesday he would join the Tigers’ 2013 class, this became the third time in four years in which a top–30 prospect from outside the Memphis area said yes to Pastner (following Will Barton and Jelan Kendrick in 2010, Shaq Goodwin in 2012).

Perhaps Calipari made that seem routine, but it’s almost unheard of in the history of Memphis basketball, which long drew nearly all of its best talents from area high schools. Pastner has been able to succeed in recruiting beyond the backyard while still landing the majority of elite Memphis players, including current Tigers Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, Chris Crawford and Adonis Thomas and 2013 prospect Nick King.

If you can’t tell, I agree. Pastner may not be a seasoned coach yet -- he may get his strategic clock cleaned by the Rick Majeruses of the world for a few years. But it’s not like he’s the first coach to take it on the chin from Majerus, or from another peer. It happens. (Michigan State fans didn’t all freak out when Rick Pitino outcoached Tom Izzo in the Sweet 16, did they? Very different situation, obviously, but you get the point.)

But what has really mattered these past three years is the foundation Pastner has built -- and/or maintained -- in the wake of Calipari’s departure. When Calipari left, Memphis could have receded into the shadows. But Pastner was hired to land the best talent from the Memphis area and beyond, and over three years, he has done that as well as any coach in the country not named John Calipari. In every way other than the NCAA tournament, his tenure to date has been a success.

3. Eventually, if your players are good enough, that success will come. The question is whether it can come this year, and there is reason to guess at the affirmative: Even without Barton around, there is a lot of talent on this team.

That fact was essentially sealed when -- despite serious indications he could have played his way into the draft lottery -- freshman forward Adonis Thomas decided to return for his sophomore year. That should give the versatile forward a chance to shine on his own, without the likes of Barton playing in front (or beside him), with a group of players that will otherwise remain largely unchanged. Guards Chris Crawford and Antonio Barton, and Joe Jackson will be back, while forward Tarik Black returns to the low block. Jackson and Black are particularly important. Both are insanely talented -- Jackson breaks down defenses with lightning-quick handles and Black is a beast on the low block -- and both have had occasionally up-and-down careers on the court thus far, their talent occasionally outstripping their real production. (Jackson’s issues have been long-range shooting and turnovers; Black’s bugaboo is foul trouble.)

And, as the passage from DeCourcy noted above, the Tigers again will be joined by a top recruit in the class of 2012, forward Shaq Goodwin. Goodwin made a major name for himself in the spring of 2010, when he finally “put it all together,” according to ESPN Recruiting Nation. Our scouts see Goodwin as a major difference-maker, particularly on the offensive glass, which is exactly what the Tigers -- who relied on Barton for all non-Black offensive glasswork in 2012, and finished No. 230 in offensive rebounding percentage because of it -- need. Goodwin doesn’t have to flash a polished offensive game right away. But if he can come in and contribute defensively, take pressure off Black and Thomas on that end of the floor, and just go run at the rim when Jackson is weaving the ball through traffic, he could be the absolute perfect addition.

Because make no mistake: Despite the optics of last season, Memphis had a very good year. It is just as talented, if not more so, in 2012–13. The question is whether the Tigers can finally make that next step, and whether that description will apply to their young coach, too.