Under first-year head coach Josh Pastner, the Memphis Tigers' reign of dominance in Conference USA came to an end as they lost a league game for the first time in more than three seasons. With one of the best recruiting classes in the country, Memphis should re-establish their control of the conference and once again be a major factor on the national scene.
With so many new talented players on their roster, Memphis' rotation is anything but set in stone. Josh Pastner has acknowledged that finding playing time for everybody will be one of his most difficult challenges. That is a "problem" that most college coaches would love to have.
While the Tigers lose four experienced guards from last season, their much talked-about recruiting class features five freshmen guards and a transfer who will help fill the void. Six-foot-six shooting guard Will Barton is expected to make the biggest impact. He was almost ruled ineligible putting his status in jeopardy this season, but has been cleared to play. Barton is a consensus top-10 prospect in the 2010 class and should be a dynamic scorer in his freshman season.
Fellow freshmen Joe Jackson, Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford all come in with great hype and will compete for minutes in the backcourt along with New Orleans transfer Charles Carmouche, who could end up starting at point guard. Jelan Kendrick is a question mark as he was recently suspended indefinitely by Pastner due to a "personal matter" but has just recently returned to practice.
On the wing, Wesley Witherspoon has all the tools to be a stud all-around player, but has yet to tap into his full potential. D.J. Stephens and three-point threat Drew Barham played sparingly last season as freshmen but will add even more depth to the lineup.
Bruiser Will Coleman anchors a frontcourt that only loses Pierre Henderson-Niles. Six-foot-11 Angel Garcia played well after missing the first 22 games while recovering from an ACL injury and is more of a scorer than physical presence. Freshman Tarik Black is another big body down low who should see immediate playing time. Hippolyte Tsafack is still a raw talent, but brings strength and athleticism to the floor.
The Tigers have so much talent this season that they could very easily have a 10-12 man rotation. If the freshman class lives up to the extremely high expectations, Memphis will become the team to beat in a weaker C-USA and should be a factor on the national scene.
Player to Watch: Wesley Witherspoon, G/F
I really like Witherspoon to the point that is one of my sleepers for the 2011 NBA Draft. At 6-9, he has an Evan Turner-like feel to his game due to his versatility. He can handle the ball, attack the rim, shoot the three and take advantage of smaller defenders in the post. The concern is that Witherspoon has never fully reached his potential. On a young team, the junior needs to provide some needed leadership and could be scary good if he puts it all together.