History, ruins and light at the end of the Memphis tunnel?
The fall of 2007 came to the Mid-South metropolis of Memphis, TN in a blast of hope, renewal and continued dominance for its beloved Memphis Tigers men’s basketball team. The program returned several key pieces from the prior season–which was one of the university’s best ever–and with an incoming freshmen class that included Chicago prep phenom, Derrick Rose, the future was glaringly bright.
The Tigers of John Calipari had size, speed, athleticism, talent and depth at every position. They won game after game with their attacking style of penetration half-court basketball complete with the ability to bring in both lethal scorers and/or defensive-minded role guys off the bench. It was a coach’s dream. They had a schedule in place that would surely test them outside of the milk-toast rigors of the Conference-USA schedule. They were going to travel and host games against some of the nation’s best teams. No more excuses and no more stall-outs in Elite Eight (they had lost out in the EE the previous three years.)
The story of how that season played out is still fresh in most of our minds. The Tigers lost just one game all regular season (a rivalry nail-biter against cross-state and then No. 1-ranked, Tennessee) and navigated their way beautifully behind the aforementioned freshman, Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Joey Dorsey and a crew of seemingly hundreds all the way to the final game. They even had that game (and the title) in the bag, before Kansas’ Mario Chalmers’ infamous three-point buzzer-beater sent the game into overtime. The Jayhawks eventually skated away from the Tigers in those extra five minutes, but the ’07-08 Tigers could still be considered the best to ever wear the school’s colors.
“That whole team was on one page,” mentioned now-senior guard Doneal Mack, a sophomore reserve on that team. “It wasn’t arrogance, it was confidence. We knew when we walked into the gym; we were going to make it tough on them for 40 minutes. We felt like no one in the country could beat us.”
But with great success came great loss, as the team the following year was without the services of the team’s core of Dorsey, CDR and DRose. All three were drafted, signed and logging minutes in the L.
The exodus wasn’t just in the uniformed members, as the program’s instructional disciples were getting jobs, too (Derrick Kellogg became the UMass head). Fortunately, Cal was able to lure coaching talent of the likes of the young University of Arizona assistant, Josh Pastner to join him on the bench. Despite the changes, things seemed great for everyone associated with the program. That year’s installment of the Memphis Tigers were not near as gifted, but still blessed with experience (Robert Dozier, Shawn Taggert and Antonio Anderson), a fledgling one-and-done superstar (Tyreke Evans) to go along with some newly cultivated talent (Roburt Sallie, Wesley Witherspoon). That group directed the Tigers through another undefeated conference season, 33 wins and a trip to the Sweet 16.
“We all knew our roles on that team,” said Mack. “When I had the ball and I was open, he (Cal) wanted me to shoot.”
But rumblings started to swirl about possible wrong-doings involving that team that was just seconds away from winning the school’s first national championship. Rose’s name was immediately involved. SAT’s being fixed, family members getting travel benefits were just a couple of the smears looking to tarnish that team’s illustrious recent reputation.
Coach Calipari and his legion of recruiters silenced the critics when he pulled off a coup even larger than the Rose signing of two years prior, when he got a verbal from all-universe guard, John Wall out of Raleigh (NC). Birmingham’s Eric Bledsoe was rumored to be next to come into the fold and a possible Final Four trip was the immediate chatter ‘round Graceland.
It’s a given that the night is darkest immediately proceeding the sunrise but it doesn’t work the other way, unless you are talking about the Memphis Tigers basketball program. Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any better, they got horribly worse.
The folly that was Billy Gillespie in Lexington, paved the way for Cal to be named the University of Kentucky’s 22nd coach in school history. A job that might be one of the most coveted in the business, (Cal dubbed it his “dream job”) Calipari should not be condemned for taking the position. The timing, however, could not have been worse back in Memphis.
Just weeks later, the NCAA handed down its decision; finding the program guilty of the test-fixing and travel benefits. The wins from that epic season were to be vacated and their Final Four trip was to be stricken from the record books.
“You can take it away in the books,” recalls Mack. “But you can’t take away the memories or the blood, sweat and tears we left out on the court.”
(It bears repeating that Calipari’s UMass team’s suffered an identical fate over a decade prior.)
But that was all. No scholarships lost, no television bans but still some negative fall-out, followed.
Both of Calipari’s prized recruits decided to head to Bluegrass Country, putting newly inked Memphis boss, Pastner, literally behind the 8-ball. Eight scholarship players will start this season, to be exact.
“Honestly, our numbers are really short,” said Pastner. “People have asked, ‘are we going to press?’ but I don’t know how we could. I am nervous as heck going into the year because we have such a lack of depth. I am knocking on wood that we stay healthy. But we aren’t going to sit there and sulk, we are going to keep a positive attitude and coach them up. These are the cards that have been dealt and we are going to fight, scrap and claw and do whatever we can to find a way to win.”
A product of the Houston prep scene (and son to Kingwood Classic/Houston Hoops founder, Hal) and a disciple of Lute Olsen (and therefore, John Wooden), Pastner is not just a 33-year-old baby-faced newbie. Long considered a future star of the head-coaching ranks, Pastner brings a wealth of experience, contacts and a definitive style on playing the game.
“I am a real simple guy,” Pastner mentioned when describing his life on and off the court. “I don’t want to “overcoach” and I understand it’s about the players and I need to get real quality student-athletes. On the court, we have to execute, we have to cut hard, we’ve got to screen hard and we have to be not a good, but a great rebounding team. Keep things simple and play hard. Fundamentals, we’ll practice passing, jump stops, the basics!”
The first year on the job may be Pastner’s biggest challenge. The lack of current signings, the recent ACL tear of young Puerto Rican big man Angel Garcia and the departures of Evans, Dozier, Anderson and Taggert have the team in a crunch just to field a five-on-five pick-up game. But there are still some familiar faces around.
“These last few months, we have made some major strides. It’s hard to believe that we came this far from having nothing but us, seniors alone in the gym,” mentioned Mack. “We didn’t even know who was going to be here. But, we have some good players around and Pastner’s piecing the puzzle together, just fine.”
The senior Mack has spent plenty of time alongside fellow guard, Willie Kemp and round-mound Pierre Henderson-Niles. The trio has been through quite a bit together. All have been through the different phases: young bucks begging for minutes, key guys off the bench and even primary contributors. This year will be no different as they look to partner up with Sallie and Witherspoon to present a pretty formidable starting five. Add to that former Duke freshman, Elliot Williams has transferred home and been given a (family medical) waiver to allow him to begin playing immediately as a sophomore for the Tigers. The wiry, 6-5 guard was a late-season revelation for Mike Krzyzewski and his homecoming might be integral to the Tigers’ success.
“Elliot’s return was bittersweet,” said Pastner. “He will definitely help us by having another good player on the court and a bit of experience coming from a super program with one of the greatest coaches of all time. But he is a super young man and a local kid so he has already been embraced.”
And with the NCAA’s dust finally settled, some late prep signings in place, things have quieted around campus.
Fall is upon us, the football season has started, the town having already hosted their hated neighbors to the south in the Ole Miss Rebels.
Keep in mind, the city of Memphis is smack-dab in the middle of the college football-crazed south and their capital city friends in Nashville have been rabid Titan fans since the Oilers relocated from Houston in the early nineties.
But this is a basketball town. No, scratch that. Memphis is a college basketball town.
Despite sharing the same FedEx Forum digs as an actual NBA team, the Tigers are the ticket in town. (For the record, Cal’s ’07-08 team averaged 17,000 a night, while the Grizzlies drew just under 13,000 a night in the same building.)
With all of the hoopla of the last few months, support for the program is not going anywhere, even if this year’s team could never live up to the precedent set during Coach Cal’s tenure, when they enjoyed the most successful four-year stretch in college basketball history.
“The city still loves us, they treat us the same,” mentioned Mack.
The guard’s new coach has similar sentiments to echo.
“Everything has been really positive, but I also know that I haven’t coached a single game, so my approval rating is high. People were upset that Coach Cal left; they didn’t want him to leave, because of everything he had done.
Already though, Pastner is getting things done his way and by this time next year, the Tigers will be led by a pair of national blue-chip freshmen guards. Local product and one of the top point guards in the nation, Joe Jackson is sticking around the Bluff City and will be accompanied by shooting guard, Will Barton out of Baltimore. Two signings that should keep the Tigers not only still extremely relevant locally but should also put them back in the national title conversation sooner, rather than later.
“There is so much history at this university and I want to win for everyone associated with this program, the current and former players, the coaches and the fans. This is the city’s team.”