With the Memphis basketball squad still a month away from the beginning of team workouts, coach Josh Pastner learned Wednesday that the Tigers' top player has found inspiration for his game in a most unlikely venue.
African-American Rhetoric may be a snoozer for some freshmen, but that was hardly the case for freshman guard Will Barton earlier this week. So moved was Barton by a lecture from professor David Acey that the potential 2011 lottery pick repeated the message to teammates and coaches and wrote about it on Twitter.
"His main [point] was that you can will your way to anything if you truly believe in yourself," Barton said. "He was talking about Ali beating Frazier and all these other great achievements by famous people in history.
"It's all about visualizing yourself accomplishing something and then putting in the work to make it happen. That's what I plan to do at Memphis."
More than ever, Barton is just thankful for the chance.
It was just over a month ago when the NCAA declared that Barton was an academic non-qualifier because of a rule that requires players to complete high school in eight semesters. Barton graduated from Lake Clifton High in Baltimore in August of 2009, two months after the rest of his class.
Barton said he was unaware the rule applied in his case because he'd already decided to spend a postgraduate year at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire before enrolling in college.
Memphis appealed the ruling and, after re-examining nearly 2,000 pages of transcripts and other documents, the NCAA deemed Barton eligible on Aug. 21.
"I called him and told him and he was so happy," Pastner said. "One of the hardest things for a person to do is change. Usually, to change, you've got to feel some pain or you've got to hit rock bottom.
"The pain he went through then, just the mental thought process of 'Hey, [basketball] could be taken away from me …' I think it made him a different person."
And a more driven one.
"There was a time when it looked like I may never get to play at Memphis, but my faith kept me going," Barton said. "Now I've got to take advantage of this opportunity and appreciate it.
"There are a lot of people who would love to be in my shoes right now."
As the top-ranked shooting guard in the Class of 2010, Barton knows expectations for him will be high during his first – and perhaps only – year at Memphis. That's fine with the 6-foot-6 Barton, who said the pressure he feels from fans and coaches won't be nearly as intense as what he puts on himself.
Just as his professor suggested, Barton has already begun picturing himself achieving the goals he set at the start of the school year.
"I want to win a national championship," he said. "I want to be the best player in the country. And I want to be a pro, a lottery pick or even the first pick. I know I can do all those things. I just can't get cocky. I have to stay humble and focused and work on my game and all those things will happen."
Watch Barton play, and it's evident most of his ambitions aren't far-fetched – especially the ones regarding Memphis' team.
One season after missing the NCAA tournament, the Tigers should enter the season ranked no lower than No. 15 in the preseason polls and could even make a case for the Top 10.
Barton, the country's 11th-ranked prospect, was the headliner of a seven-man recruiting class that Rivals.com ranked second in the nation behind Kentucky. Small forward Jelan Kendrick (No. 15) and point guard Joe Jackson (No. 18) were among the players who joined Barton in Memphis' impressive haul.
Add them to a list of returnees that includes future NBA draft pick Wesley Witherspoon and starting forward Will Coleman, and Memphis will be as long, athletic and deep as any team in the country.
"It could be an exciting season for us," Pastner said. "We'll just have to wait and see. We've got a lot of good players, but so many of them are young. We've only got two guys (Witherspoon and New Orleans transfer Charles Carmouche) who have ever scored 20 or more points in a college game."
Although he may go through some growing pains early, youth shouldn't be much of a factor for Barton, who is regarded as one of the truly elite incoming players. Also, remember, Barton played for a prep school last season, so he's a year older than most of his freshman teammates.
One way Barton can set himself apart in the minds of NBA scouts is to bring out the best in those around him. Pastner said he has yet to designate a team leader or name a captain, but he said Barton certainly has the personality to fit such a role.
"It's a great opportunity for him," Pastner said. "It could happen. He's a very upbeat person. Guys love being around him. He attracts people because he's always got a smile on his face.
"Still, whoever gets that job will have to earn it."
Barton said he's up for the role.
"When the season starts, I'll keep getting more and more vocal. I've been a leader my whole life. Even though I'm only a freshman I think people respect my game. They feed off me. So I think I'll be in a position to be that guy."
Although the start of practice is still a month away, Barton is already doing his best to lead by example. It wasn't uncommon to find him in the gym during the summer shooting jump shots with his teammates well past midnight. Instead of writing about his future in the NBA, most of his tweets illustrate a love of Memphis and a genuine excitement about the season.
Thanks to some hard work in the weight room, Barton has gained 16 pounds over the past few months and now checks in at 177. He said his goal is to weigh 185. Pastner doesn't want Barton to get so heavy the extra weight affects his athleticism.
As much as they need him to score and penetrate, the Tigers are counting on Barton to provide a boost on the offensive and defensive glass. If Memphis has any weakness other than youth, it's a lack of size down low.
"I think he's the best rebounding guard in the 2010 class," Pastner said. "He should never have an off night rebounding. He can have some off nights when it comes to shooting and points. But he should be productive on both ends of the glass every single night."
Barton said he's prepared for the challenge, adding that he's looking forward to what's ahead of him instead on dwelling on the frustrating experiences he left behind. It's obvious he's learned from his mistakes.
"It was nobody's fault but mine," Barton said of the eligibility issues that arose last month. "If I'd have done better in school when I was younger none of that stuff would've even come up.
"All you can do is man up, deal with it, and then turn a bad situation into a good one."
- Josh Pastner