Memphis is the 17th largest city in America. But its fruitful basketball crop belies that status. For years, the city has been a haven for talent.
Since those players are just a short drive from the University of Memphis, ranked 17th in the Associated Press preseason poll, it’s no surprise that Josh Pastner’s program has found success with a balance of local stars and national products.
This year’s squad embodies that strategy. For the first time in nearly 20 years, all five Tigers starters for Monday’s opener against North Florida could hail from Bluff City. It’s a nostalgic concept for Tigers fans who adored past programs that were infused with athletes from the “Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock ‘n Roll.”
It's been 18 seasons since the Tigers put an all-Memphis squad on the floor to start a regular-season game — Feb. 28, 1995, to be exact. In a 27-point Senior Day victory over Dayton, coach Larry Finch started Justin Wimmer, Marcus Nolan, Lorenzen Wright, Leon Mitchell and Jason Fox.
But over a five- to six-year period in the 1980s, the Tigers thrived off homegrown talent, starting five guys from Memphis for much of those entire seasons under Finch and his predecessor, Dana Kirk.
This year, Memphis has that option again under coach Josh Pastner with local products Jackson, Chris Crawford, Adonis Thomas, Ferrakohn Hall and Tarik Black, who have spent much of the last two weeks teamed in practice.
But unlike those Tigers squads of the 1980s, Pastner's teams haven't relied solely on Memphis talent and won't again this season with veterans Antonio Barton (Baltimore) and D. J. Stephens (Killeen, Texas) and newcomers Shaq Goodwin (Decatur, Ga.) and Geron Johnson (Dayton, Ohio) all sure to play significant minutes, if not start.
Unlike predecessor John Calipari, whose teams largely featured out-of-town talent, Pastner has found a niche in recruiting locally and nationally and continues to do so, having put together a 2013 recruiting class featuring three highly ranked Memphis-area products (Austin Nichols, Nick King and Markel Crawford) and two more from Connecticut (Kuran Iverson) and Florida (Pookie Powell).
"This is a national program. Of course we want to recruit locally because there's great players in this city and the Mid-South. But we're going to recruit nationally. Bottom line," Pastner said. "We're an elite program, so we're going to recruit the very best.”
When some of “the very best” live near campus, it’s always a plus. And Pastner has capitalized on those spoils as this season’s Conference USA favorites.
Many coaches are forced to diversify their rosters with mostly out-of-town players because the local talent is so limited. That’s clearly not Pastner’s problem.
The drawback is that Pastner has to contend with other high-profile coaches who mine the city in search of talent. Memphis high school star Johnathan Williams III (No. 37 in RecruitingNation’s Top 100 prospects in the 2013 class) recently committed to Missouri.
But the advantages outweigh all obstacles. Pastner is clearly committed to preserving -- and restoring -- his program’s ties to the local talent pool. It’s a can’t-miss strategy that’s obviously worked for past Memphis coaches.
And with the Memphis pipeline remaining strong, it’s one that Pastner will continue to employ. Three local stars -- Austin Nichols (No. 13), who chose Memphis over Duke and Tennessee, Nick King (No. 31) and Markel Crawford -- have committed to Pastner’s 2013 class, currently ranked second nationally by RecruitingNation.
It’s also an opportunity for the Tigers to draw more fans to home games. Memphis fell out of the top 10 in national attendance last season (No. 11) for the first time since 2006-07.
With all of the locals on the roster this season, it’s easy to envision the Tigers moving up those standings in 2012-13.
Retailers encourage consumers to “buy local.” Pastner’s phrase could be: “sign local.”