A traditional pre-season top 25? They’re fairly ubiquitous this time of year. Everyone has one, but from Duke to Mississippi Valley State and in between, there’s a lot of intriguing teams for the upcoming college basketball season.
In ascending order of squads that pique our interest, our list consists of teams with a rare chance to make noise, have a lot to prove, quirky schedules, or are just named Kentucky.
Follow along. Story lines aren’t just for the nation’s elite.
When it was announced last off-season that he would be John Calipari’s replacement at Memphis, we didn’t really know or respect Josh Pastner. It’s easy to poke fun at him. He’s young (33), looks even younger, is really nice, and was promoted from within - suggesting that Memphis gave him the job because they were unable to land a big name coach from outside the program. But it only took a few on-screen appearances to learn that not only was Pastner the most qualified guy to be the Tigers new head coach, he’s on track to become one of the top sideline-manners in the entire country. Silly us.
Invaluable as an assistant at Arizona and Memphis because of his sharp recruiting skills, Pastner’s first freshman class with a season of head coaching under his belt is as good as it gets, boasting three five-star recruits and enough explosiveness to tag them with a warning label. With a large turnover of players from a squad that finished second (OMG!) in Conference USA last season, the rift-raft has left the building, and going forward each Tigers team will have Pastner’s imprint.
There's incoming players at every position on the court, and this collection of fine crops begins with Will Barton, who committed to the program last year and instilled faith in his peers that Memphis wasn’t going anywhere sans Calipari. Homegrown product Joe Jackson already has the keys to the team’s offense, and could continue a legacy of successful Memphis-bred players to suit up for the Tigers. Throw in Jelan Kendrick and Chris Crawford, newbie studs who can come off the bench and ease themselves into the rigors of Division I college basketball, and you have 50 percent of a rotation that, win or lose, will be a blast to watch all season long.
What happened this summer?
Yahoo! Sports' Jason King wrote an excellent, must-read, piece on Josh Pastner. Roburt Sallie, who received his diploma this summer but still had one year of eligibility remaining, decided to leave the team. Will Barton was declared academically eligible in late August.
Games that really matter
11/15 vs. Miami (a midnight EST tip-off to commence ESPN's 24-hour marathon)
- 12/7 vs. Kansas (@ MSG)
- 12/23 vs. Georgetown
- 1/5 @ Tennessee
- 1/19 @ Southern Mississippi (Larry Eustachy’s team returns its top six scorers from last season, and will contend for the C-USA crown)
Most intriguing player
Wesley Witherspoon (6’9" junior; guard) - We’re going to hear a ton about Pastner’s class of 2010 this season, but this team’s success isn’t entirely predicated on the talents of the super frosh. Once Elliot Williams somewhat surprisingly bolted for the NBA, it left the junior Witherspoon as the team’s leading returning scorer. He's not a house-hold name by any means, and frankly we are a tad incredulous he's the kind of guy who can be the first-option on a team that's supposed to be a top 25 mainstay. Nonetheless, Witherspoon did score in double figures in 17 of the Tigers final 21 games last year, and has been receiving favorable reviews as a playmaker - both off the dribble and as a spot-up shooter.
What’s on the line?
Pride and respect. Pastner is on the hook for the results this incoming class yields. Additionally, with the visibility Memphis gets on a national level, it would be weird if they weren’t the top Conference USA team for a second straight season. Prognosticators offer varying thoughts and predictions on where Memphis will be at the end of the season, but nobody believes they can’t earn an automatic bid and return to the NCAA Tournament.
While this class may not have a Derrick Rose- or Tyreke Evans-type, we saw both those precocious players improve steadily in Memphis’ system to the point where they had NBA star written all over them after their lone season in college. It’s likely that the Tigers team we see on display in early December at the Jimmy V Classic will be operating at 50 – 75 percent of what they’re capable of. By season’s end, we expect Memphis to be a top 15 squad with a regional final in their sights.
- Conference: 1st
- Postseason: Sweet 16