Top 25 Countdown: No. 13 Memphis Tigers

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-9, 13-3 C-USA (1st); Lost in the Opening Round of the NCAA tournament to St. Louis

Head Coach: Josh Pastner

Key Losses: Will Barton, Wesley Witherspoon, Charles Carmouche

Newcomers: Shaq Goodwin, Geron Johnson, Damien Wilson, Anthony Cole

Projected Lineup:

G: Joe Jackson, Jr.
G: Chris Crawford, Jr.
F: Adonis Thomas, So.
F: Ferrakhon Hall, Sr.
C: Tarik Black, Jr.
Bench: Antonio Barton, Jr.; Shaw Goodwin, Fr.; Geron Johnson, Jr.; Stan Simpson, Sr.; DJ Stephens, Sr.

Outlook: For the past couple of seasons, this Memphis group has been overrated heading into the season. The junior class, the leaders of this team that also included Will Barton for the past two years, were young and overwhelmed as freshmen. They ended up making the NCAA tournament when Joe Jackson found his form in the Conference USA tournament and carried the Tigers to an automatic bid before nearly upsetting Arizona in the opening round.

Last season started out on the same note for Memphis, as they went 6-5 in their first 11 games of the season. But after an embarrassing loss to Georgetown in Washington DC, things changed. Pastner, who put together a pretty impressive coaching performance over the last three months of the season, got this group refocused and managed to win 20 of the last 23 games despite the fact that Jackson nearly transferred and Adonis Thomas missed a big chunk of with an injury. Memphis was picked by many pundits as a sleeper prior to the bracket being released, but they, again, lost in the opening round after getting slotted as a No. 8 seed and matched up with a very good St. Louis team.

So while I know that you’re probably getting tired of hearing it at this point, I think that this is the year that the Tigers break through.

First and foremost, I think it needs to be mentioned that the entire starting lineup I have listed above hails from Memphis. All five of them. And if you know anything about Memphis, you know that it’s a city that is crazy about their basketball. High school, college, NBA. So not only are these kids playing for their school and for their teammates, but they’re out there representing their city as well. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a 20 year old — pressure that almost drove Jackson, who was labeled as the King of Memphis in high school, out of the program — but this is can no longer be called a young group. Four of the five are upperclassmen that have started at least one year in the program, while Thomas started as a freshman and, despite missing time with the injury, played in the NCAA tournament.

There are no more excuses to make.

Especially from a talent perspective.

Jackson and Thomas are the two studs. Coming out of White Station High, Jackson was a top 15 recruit that some thought had a chance to head off to the NBA after one season in college. That didn’t happen, but that doesn’t change the fact that the diminutive Jackson is a talented scorer and play-maker. Jackson actually benefited from the emergence of Chris Crawford, and to a lesser extent, Antonio Barton, taking over the point guard role, which allowed him to move off of the ball and focus less on running the offense and more on creating scoring opportunities.

Thomas is the guy on the roster most likely to eventually turn into a lottery pick. At 6-foot-7, 240 lb, he’s a powerful combo-forward who is still making the transition to being a full-time perimeter player. He hit a good percentage from three last season (40.5%), but only took 37 of them. It will be interesting to see how things like his handle and his mid-range game have improved, because he’s got the length, strength and athleticism to be an effective rebounder and finisher around the basket.

Given the hype he had coming in, Thomas had a bit of a disappointing freshman season, and it wasn’t solely the result of his injury. He wasn’t alone, either, as Tarik Black was expected by many to put together an all-conference caliber season. While he did finish the year averaging double-figures, Black never really became the kind of interior presence many thought he would be. Black and Thomas will be the difference-makers for Memphis. How well they perform will determine whether the Tigers are once again a tournament team or a legitimate contender to make a run to the Final Four.

In addition to being an experienced group, Pastner actually has quite a bit of depth at his disposal. Joining Thomas and Black on the front line will be the combination of Shaq Goodwin and Ferrakhan Hall. Hall was a bit of an unsung hero for the Tigers last season, giving them some energy and size in the paint, which was something they lacked a year ago. Goodwin will likely be the best option by the end of the season, however he is only a freshman. Another big body, Stan Simpson, will likely get a good amount of playing time as well.

The guy to keep an eye on in the back court is Geron Johnson. The JuCo transfer has had all kinds of legal issue early in his career, but he’s a former top 100 recruit that’s certainly talented and on his last chance to play at this level. He’s a risk, but he’s got a nice upside if everything goes right.

Predictions?: I don’t think it’s even a question that Memphis is the favorite in Conference USA, but at this point, Memphis fans have got to be fed up with simply being the best team in a league that seemingly gets worse by the day. Memphis wants to be a national program, and, as such, they want to see evidence of that in March. They want to see a win over a top 25 program. For the first time in his Memphis tenure, Pastner has a group that can be classified as both talented and experienced. And, for arguably the first time in his career, Pastner can be termed “experienced” as a head coach. I can see this group being a first round flameout again, but I can also see them putting it all together and making a run to the Final Four.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Grand Canyon lands Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson

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Grand Canyon landed an important piece for its NCAA tournament push on Saturday night as Oregon graduate transfer guard Casey Benson pledged to the Antelopes.

The 6-foot-3 Benson will be eligible right away as spent the past three seasons with the Ducks as a key reserve guard, helping Oregon to multiple deep NCAA tournament runs. Benson picked Grand Canyon over Wisconsin for his final season of college basketball as Benson’s brother, T.J., is an assistant coach with the Antelopes.

Benson shot 40 percent from three-point range last season while also being a steady ball handler over the course of his career at Oregon as he has only 81 career turnovers in over 2,600 career minutes with the Ducks. While Benson wasn’t asked to score a lot for a loaded Oregon team that featured multiple bucket-getters, he could be asked to do more at Grand Canyon.

Grand Canyon is eligible for the NCAA tournament for the first time next season as the addition of Benson gives them an experienced guard who should be more of a factor in the WAC. The Antelopes are coming off of a 22-9 season in which they finished 11-3 in conference play.

With great facilities and a quickly-growing fan base, head coach Dan Majerle has the potential makings of a perennial mid-major conference contender if he continues to recruit well to Grand Canyon.

Colorado adds commitment from Class of 2017 point guard McKinley Wright

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Colorado landed one of the best available point guards for next season on Friday as Class of 2017 floor general McKinley Wright committed during an official visit.

A former Dayton commit who opted out of his recruitment after former head coach Archie Miller took the Indiana job, Wright was one of the best available point guards left as he played last weekend on the adidas Gauntlet in front of college coaches with D1 Minnesota.

The 6-foot-0 Wright gives the Buffaloes another ball handler and distributor as he was Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball during this past season. As a senior, Wright averaged 22.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game.

It’s always hard to say if spring recruits who elevate a level in recruiting after decommitting are making the correct decision, but Wright looked the part of a high-major lead guard last weekend, and Colorado wasn’t the only high-major program that was pushing hard to add Wright at this late stage.

Oral Roberts to hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills

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Oral Roberts has found its new head coach as they will hire Baylor assistant coach Paul Mills, as first reported by NBCSports.com’s Rob Dauster.

Mills had been on staff with the Bears since 2003 as he’s been a big factor in why head coach Scott Drew has been able to turn around that program. A graduate of Texas A&M, Mills has been a full-time assistant at Baylor since the 2009 season.

“I am honored to accept this role of representing this historic institution, its students and its mission,” Mills said in a release. “Making this commitment today is a highlight of my career and I look forward with excitement to the basketball season directly ahead. Go Golden Eagles.”

Mills will replace former head coach Scott Sutton, who was relieved of his duties this offseason after 18 years at the helm.

 

Iowa commit Connor McCaffery to redshirt in basketball to pursue baseball

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Iowa commit Connor McCaffery is in a unique spot when he starts his freshman year in Iowa City next year.

Not only is the 6-foot-4 guard the son of basketball head coach Fran McCaffery, while being a four-star national basketball prospect, but Connor also has a bright future in baseball.

There was a lot of speculation as to what Connor might do for his future in athletics and he gave more clarification on what he might be looking to do on Friday.

McCaffery has decided to redshirt in basketball next season to focus on the beginnings of his baseball career at Iowa. A walk-on for both sports, the move enables Connor McCaffery to potentially play three years of basketball with his younger brother, Patrick, who is also a heralded basketball recruit for Iowa. This move also gives Connor the best chance to pursue both sports while he’ll also help out a young Iowa basketball team with its tough scholarship scenario.

Butler, Chris Holtmann agree to a contract extension

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Butler has agreed to a contract extension with head coach Chris Holtmann, the school announced on Friday, that will keep him under contract through 2025.

“Butler truly is a special place, and my family and I are thankful to be part of a great academic institution and an athletics department that is a source of pride for those who embrace Butler and The Butler Way,” said Holtmann. “Our student-athletes, our staff, and so many throughout our campus are remarkable at what they do, and I’m excited to continue to work alongside them.”

Holtmann was named Big East Coach of the Year after leading the Bulldogs to a 25-9 record and a spot in the Sweet 16. In three years with the program, Holtmann has a record of 70-31.

“Chris is a tremendous ambassador for Butler and the Butler Way, and his leadership has resulted in success both on and off the court for the talented young men in our program,” said Butler Vice President/Director of Athletics Barry Collier. “This commitment – both by our university and by Chris – allows the momentum within our program to continue.”

Holtmann was in the mix for a couple of jobs this spring, including N.C. State and Missouri.