Welcoming The Big East Newcomers: Memphis TigersPosted by mlemaire on February 24th, 2012
After adding a flurry of new members in December, The Big East apparently wasn’t done. Recently Memphis announced they had accepted an invitation to become the Big East’s 12th member and join the conference in all sports in 2013. We rolled out the red carpet of analysis for the other three new members, so we will do the same for Memphis. As always, keep in mind, it is far too early to tell what sort of impact these teams will have in their new conference, but that won’t stop us from pontificating.
In a contest of basketball history with the other new members, no one can touch the Tigers. They also have a troubled history. Eugene Lambert led the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1955 and since then Memphis has played in 22 NCAA Tournaments, has gone to 11 Sweet Sixteens, six Elite Eights, two Final Fours, and two National Championship games. They have been the stomping grounds for great players like Larry Finch, Keith Lee, Elliot Perry, Anfernee Hardaway, Lorenzen Wright, and most recently, Derrick Rose.
Of course it also true that a whole host of those appearances and wins have been vacated by the NCAA thanks to widespread rules violations. Everybody remembers the most recent snafu where John Calipari and the program dealt with infractions like providing travel money to Rose’s brother as well as playing Derrick Rose under suspicion of a fraudulent SAT score that caused the NCAA to remove its Final Four appearance and record 38-win season. But only older Tiger fans will also remember former coach Dana Kirk and the parade of allegations against him that led to his ouster and the vacation of all the team’s wins from 1982-86.
Regardless of the less-than-shiny past, the school’s football program is in tatters, so it is safe to assume that the Big East had an eye towards retaining some of their luster and reputation on the basketball court, and Memphis is an excellent fit in that regard.
When Calipari left to take the job at Kentucky, the Tigers wasted little time inserting former assistant wunderkind Josh Pastner as his replacement and the move has already paid dividends. While Pastner hasn’t quite gotten the program back to the heights of 2008, he has proven to be a more than capable caretaker. He is young, but his tireless efforts on the recruiting trail are well-documented and he has three-straight 20-win seasons to show for it.
This season the Tigers have been talented, but also inconsistent. They have won eight of their last 10 games and sit atop the Conference USA standings by one game, but their most impressive wins have been at Miami early in the season when the Hurricanes were struggling, and at home against scuffling Xavier. Losing precocious freshman Adonis Thomas to injury earlier probably didn’t help much, and the struggles of point guard Joe Jackson have forced do-it-all guard Will Barton (18.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG) to carry the team.
The Tigers definitely have the talent to win their conference and earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament, and they might need to because their out-of-conference resume is somewhat underwhelming. They are also one of those long, athletic, defensive-minded teams that can make a run in the NCAA Tournament and a lot will depend on whether their young core can play with poise.
We already mentioned they are coached by one of the best recruiters in the sport, right? So then you should already know that Memphis’ future is similarly bright. Wesley Witherspoon is a valuable role player and Charles Carmouche hasn’t left the bench in weeks, and those are the only two players Pastner will lose next season, assuming Barton doesn’t turn pro and no one else transfers.
Missing out on top local big men Jarnell Stokes and Alex Poythress was no fun for Memphis or its fan base, but the Tigers also already have commitments from two top-100 recruits, including highly coveted big man Shaquille Goodwin. And they aren’t ignoring Georgia big men Tony Parker and Charles Mitchell, should a scholarship become available. Memphis is a hotbed for excellent talent, and the allure of the Big East should make a school with such a rich tradition and excellent resources even more appealing to recruits.
Memphis isn’t going anywhere, and they could be a legitimate Top 20 team as soon as next season. So if you were to look at the move from solely a basketball perspective, it seems like the conference was finally able to save some face in what has become its most recognized sport.