It's hard to imagine Memphis not being better than it was last year, when a freshman-heavy squad survived an injury- and suspension-wracked season to go 25--10 and come within two points of reaching the NCAA tournament's round of 32 as a No. 12 seed. All five starters are back, as is 88.2% of the scoring. The Tigers add 6'6" freshman swingman Adonis Thomas, a Memphis native and McDonald's All-American who can rebound and hit the midrange jumper. Coach Josh Pastner has also hired two NBA veterans as assistants—retired guard Damon Stoudamire and locked-out Lakers forward Luke Walton—as well as San Francisco fitness guru Frank Matrisciano, a.k.a. Hell's Trainer, who has helped sculpt several NBA players, including ripped Clippers star Blake Griffin. "There's very much an NBA feel about this place," says Pastner.
One Tiger soaking up all the expertise around him is 6'8", 243-pound sophomore forward Tarik Black, who shed 20 pounds after working out with Matrisciano and has become a consistent low-post scoring threat under the guidance of Walton. "Tarik runs the floor like a guard, he jumps out of the gym, and he works as hard as anyone we have," says Walton, to whom Pastner handed over his front line as soon as the novice coach arrived on campus in August. "He's one of the best post defenders I've ever seen in college. What I'm trying to get him to do is slow down when he's making his offensive moves, to read the situation developing."
Black wasn't the only Tiger guilty of moving too fast last season. Although Memphis was 23rd in the nation in steals (8.5 per game), it was 290th in turnovers (15.3). Taking care of the ball, defensive rebounding and perimeter shooting (last year the Tigers shot 32.9% from beyond the arc compared with 38.8% in 2009--10) have been the emphasis in practice.
And if Pastner's words don't carry weight, Walton's should. "I think the sky is the limit for these guys, and I've told them they have an amazing opportunity," says the two-time NBA champion. "I never won a championship in college. I lost in the Final Four [with Arizona in 2001], and it still haunts me. I tell them, 10, 20 years from now, you'll still remember any blown opportunities. But if you do make it all the way, it will be one of the greatest experiences of your lives."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Josh Pastner (3rd season)
2010--11 RECORD 25--10 C-USA 10--6 (4th)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Round of 64
GAMES DECIDED by five or fewer points that were won by the Tigers last season, out of 15. The experience of closing out tight games will serve Memphis well this season.
Using their superior athleticism, out-of-this-world fitness and a newfound appreciation for each possession, the Tigers race all the way to the Final Four.
It's déj√† vu all over again. The Tigers are addled by injuries and immaturity, but this time there is no late-season correction. The NIT beckons.
DANNY REISE/SOUTHCREEK GLOBAL/ZUMAPRESS.COM
TARIK BLACK With an even more chiseled frame now, the sophomore should dominate conference forwards on the low block.