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September 7, 2011Memphis vs Arizona 2011
The repetitive theme from last season's edition of the Memphis Tigers can probably be condensed to one simple word:
The young Tiger cubs were too immature to jump on an opponent and put them away when they had the chance. Instead, game after game went down to the wire. To their credit, the team had an amazing record in contests decided by five points or less (13-2), including the heartbreaker to Arizona.
However, it opened the team to intense criticism and negative scrutiny, and it probably took a few years off the back end of Josh Pastner's life.
Or, at the very least, hastened a few gray hairs. But as is his wont, he prefers to see the glass as half full rather than half empty.
"Yes, we were 13-2 in games decided by 5 points or less," he acknowledged. "Look at the positive: we found ways to win. Now, perhaps we had some immaturity that led to those close situations, but our guys were also mature enough to find ways to win.
"This year, we've got to learn how to play hard at all times. We have to realize that there's no time to take a play off. "
Early indications are that the maddening inconsistency and immaturity of the 2010-'11 season will not be repeated.
"Quite honestly, the guys have been better than I expected," Pastner reported. "They've had a very focused, businesslike approach, which I'm proud of."
In fact, the focus of the entire team has been so laser-like that Pastner refuses to identify just one or two players who have separated themselves during early workouts.
"I've got to say they've all been doing a really nice job so far. They're taking this seriously. I'm really pleased with everybody."
Of course, it's impossible to forecast how well the players will respond when there's really something at stake.
"There is no pressure right now," Pastner stressed. "The intensity and scrutiny are not there yet. It's yet to be seen how they'll react once things get serious and there's actually playing time at stake. But so far I've been impressed."
The discussion logically gravitated to one of the team's two fourth-year seniors, enigmatic Wesley Witherspoon. The news was encouraging.
"You know, I have to give credit where it's due," Pastner said enthusiastically. "He's done some very good things as far as his maturity and accountability are concerned. He's pretty much done everything we've asked of him. He's done a really good job."
'Spoon could be the key to the entire season. Any player who is 6'9", can put the ball on the floor, and can score in as many ways as Witherspoon can is a match-up nightmare for opposing coaches. If Wesley can carry his strong off season over into a senior campaign commiserate with his ability, Memphis will be hard to handle.
Rising sophomores Will Barton, Tarik Black, and Joe Jackson are stepping up as team leaders in their second year on campus. Barton and Jackson are rather new to the role of vocal leader; for Black, it's just more of the same from late last season.
"Tarik has picked up where he left off," Pastner said. "He's at a really high level right now, and we need that to continue. With the weight he lost, he's quicker and more athletic and we're able to do more things with him. You gotta understand, he's contributing all over the floor now."
Newcomer Stan Simpson had to hit the ground running. The staff doesn't have time to baby the junior college transfer. He averaged 12.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Ill., as a sophomore.
"He's done some good things," Pastner admits. "There's been a lot thrown at him and he's gonna be expected to produce. As a staff, our challenge is that we've got to maximize his production. The number one thing with Stan is he's got to play hard every possession.
"We've got to make sure to get his motor going and keep it going. He's got to rebound and block shots. That's what we're stressing with him. He's got to crash the glass offensively and defensively every single time. That's the number one thing we expect of him."
Early workouts have been centered primarily on one thing: defense.
"We've put in a couple of things, but our whole focus is defense," Pastner said emphatically. "That's the key to everything we're trying to do. And due mainly to our players' improved attitude and maturity, we're actually farther ahead than we were at a similar point last year."
World-renowned life changer Frank Matrisciano's contributions will also be key. Pastner plans to play at a fever pitch and his players will have to be ready.
"We've got to be in amazing condition to play the way I want to play," he said matter-of-factly. "We're not there yet. We've got a ways to go, but we're gonna get there."
And we would be remiss not to touch on the newest member of the coaching staff, Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers.
"He's been fantastic," Pastner gushed. "He brings tremendous knowledge of the game of basketball. And he's developed a great rapport with our players. This guy is a world champion and shows us why every day. He's fit in perfectly with the staff.
"I'm really pleased with how well he's fit in and how comfortable we all are with one another."
Pastner still insists he's not concerned that Walton could be leaving Memphis sooner rather than later.
"I think he'll be here till December or January," he said. "I haven't heard rumors that the lockout is ending any sooner than that. But if it does? Well, I guess we'll have to cross that bridge when and if we come to it."
Meanwhile, the young Tigers continue taking their businesslike attitude to work with them, preparing for a brutal schedule and burgeoning expectations. If early returns from workouts is any indication, they're ready for the challenge.
Leroy Watson, Jr. is Managing Editor of TigerSportsReport.com and may be reached via e-mail: Leroy@tigersportsreport.com or on Twitter: @leroywatsonjr