After failing to earn an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2005, Memphis hopes one of the country’s top recruiting classes can help return the program to national prominence.
The No. 19 Tigers begin that quest Friday night at home against Centenary.
Two seasons removed from a national runner-up finish, Memphis went 24-10 under first-year coach Josh Pastner and lost to Mississippi in the second round of the NIT.
Last season’s struggles weren’t totally unexpected. The Tigers lost their top four scorers and coach John Calipari took his act to Kentucky.
Though swingman Wesley Witherspoon (12.5 points per game) and forward Will Coleman (7.4 ppg) are the only returning starters, the Tigers added a talented group of freshmen that could turn the squad into a national contender once again.
Highly touted freshman guard Will Barton went as far to tell a local newspaper that the Tigers would win the national title this season.
Pastner, however, is taking a more cautious approach.
“We have the chance to do something special this year, if we put team above `I,’” Pastner told the school’s official website. “We have the talent, but can we sacrifice and trust each other; that is the question for this team. We have been working on those things from day one, and those are the keys.”
Like recent Memphis stars Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, Barton could be another Tiger to leave after one season in Memphis. He has yet to play a collegiate game but was named a Conference USA preseason second-team selection by the league coaches.
Barton, initially ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA before appealing and getting that decision overturned in April, has been plagued by a knee and ankle injuries but is expected to play Friday.
Point guard Joe Jackson and McDonald’s All-American guard Jelan Kendrick also should contribute as freshmen.
However, it’s uncertain when Kendrick will play after missing two weeks to deal with a “personal matter.” One report claimed he was indefinitely suspended while school officials investigated a verbal threat he made against a teammate.
Transfer Charles Carmouche joins the mix after he averaged 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds at New Orleans last season. He is eligible to play immediately because the Privateers’ program dropped their Division I status.
With seven freshmen and Carmouche, Memphis’ eight newcomers are the program’s most to enter a season since 1972-73.
“We cannot play as individuals,” Pastner said. “This has got to be a team effort for us to be successful.”
That’s especially true on the defensive end where the Tigers allowed 65.7 points per game after yielding 58.8 in 2008-09.
Memphis has a chance to flex its defensive muscle against Centenary, playing its final season as a Division I program before dropping to Division III in 2011-12.
The Gentlemen have averaged 7.2 victories a season since going 16-12 in 2003-04.
Guard Roman Tubner averaged 8.0 points but is the top returner from last season’s 8-21 squad. Of Centenary’s 11 newcomers, nine are freshmen.
“Opening night should be fun for our guys to play against one of the top 5 recruiting classes in the country at Memphis,” first-year coach Adam Walsh told the schools’ official website.
Though Memphis has won three in a row over Centenary, this is the first meeting between the schools since Feb. 26, 1963.