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Top 25 Countdown: No. 13 Memphis Tigers

Oct 17, 2012, 3:00 PM EST

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Saint Louis v Memphis Getty Images

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.

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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.