It seems fitting that the last two teams in our series of Mid-Major Top 20 previews are teams that don't quite fit the mold of the mid-major. Gonzaga has been so good for so long, they operate like a major program, bringing in the recruits that schools in the Big 6 try to get.
That isn't happening at a school like Pepperdine, not anymore.
The same can be said for Memphis, which earned its revival thanks to a short stop by John Calipari on his way to Kentucky. The Tigers' run to a few minutes away from a National Championship has allowed them to become the Little Blue Nation.
Calipari is gone, but the success under him has stayed put with Josh Pastner at the controls. The top recruits are still here, including a top-50 big man in Shaq Goodwin this season.
The sort of extra voltage that being able to compete for and land those recruits gives to a program shouldn't be underestimated, especially when those teams play in the mid-major leagues.
There is no one else in Conference USA who is bringing in that collection of talent year after year. There might be a single player, but not a team of potential NBA players.
But as with Gonzaga, it takes a deft hand to craft those players into a team that can perform on the floor. Calipari knows how to do that -- some say he is the best at it. That may not be true for Pastner yet.
Last season began with a lot of high hopes for the Tigers, and they fulfilled them at times. But there were breakdowns both on and off the court that in the end limited how far that collection of talent went in the NCAA Tournament.
According to our numbers, Memphis entered March as the No. 6 team in the country. They left before making the Round of 32.
Barton blossomed into a superstar in just his second year, turning in an 8.2 HW30. Witherspoon flashed that same skill, but stalled in his development, and was never the same after that second campaign.
That happens at the bigger schools too, where players reach a peak early and don't progress. The difference at those bigger schools is that the pipeline is a lot deeper. Memphis might only get its single shot at the title.
This season it will be the development of the rest of the roster that will determine the Tigers' fate. There will be questions about whether Tarik Black is this season's Barton. If Black can continue his efficient scoring on the inside, and increase his rebounding skill on the defensive end, the loss of the current Portland Trailblazer won't affect the team much.
The problem is that questions like that are all over the Tiger roster. We called out some of them during our discussion of Central Florida's Keith Clanton this summer. The Knights have developed talent, that can be counted on to produce at a level we can understand.
Memphis has the talent, but when will it show up?
Will Adonis Thomas become the superstar wing in his sophomore season? His freshman season ended above average at a -0.2 HW30. It isn't exactly what you expect from the high profile recruit, but the year was derailed by an ankle injury and it is hard to quantify what he could have done healthy.
Is Goodwin going to play major minutes on the floor right away? If the rebounding numbers aren't there from Black, you have to assume that Pastner is going to want to add some more size to help.
Will Joe Jackson has to pick up more of the scoring slack this season, turning into a combo guard instead of the ball distributor? And will that affect his efficiency as he lofts more shots?
And is Chris Crawford going to blossom into an all-around player, instead of just being the best defender on the team. The Tigers could afford to have him not shoot last year. That isn't the case now.
The general consensus out there is that Memphis will be back at the high level they performed last year. Maybe the Magic 8-Ball on their desks is a little better than the one I am using. Mine keeps saying "Future Uncertain".
Bottom Line: Memphis has a lot of talent and should be at the top of Conference USA. The question is whether they will be a national contender as predicted by so many and live up to the preseason ranking they were handed.
The nonconference schedule is much lighter this season, and that could work in the Tigers' favor as they figure out exactly where the scoring and rebounding will come from this year.
An exhibition win over Christian Brothers showed that there is a lot of room for improvement, and perhaps it wasn't exactly the lineup that Memphis will use during the season. But if coasting against a lower Division opponent is an issue now, what will happen when it counts in the standings?