Wolken On Memphis – Analyzing Dan’s Recent Tweet Heat

The Commercial Appeal has a long history of producing University of Memphis Basketball beat writers that eventually go on to write about college basketball nationally. Luckily for Memphis fans with a voracious appetite for Tiger-related information, these guys usually continue to commentate liberally on the Tigers.

Mike Decourcy was on the Tiger beat over 20 years ago – and is now the national college basketball writer for The Sporting News. Decourcy’s relentless writing about Memphis’ candidacy for the BIG EAST surely helped lend some credibility to the University’s effort towards gaining membership in that league.

Gary Parrish covered the Tigers during the early John Calipari era – before moving on to write (and appear on television) for CBS Sports. There’s probably not a program outside of Lexington, KY that Parrish writes about more often than his alma mater – even though he now has a national platform.

Dan Wolken – who was the Tigers beat writer during the 2008 National Runner up season – eventually moved on, and after a brief stint as a national columnist for The Daily, now writes for the USA Today.

Wolken has made some very strong comments of late in regards to the Memphis program.

First, let’s look at what he said about last night’s Memphis – Tulsa game – a 74-72 OT loss for the Tigers:

Hard to argue with Dan on that one.

Even with Austin Nichols sidelined – Memphis had a 9 pt lead with under 6 minutes to play. The Tigers proceeded to fall apart down the stretch before forcing OT – and then lost on the final possession where the best shot they could generate in 18 seconds, down 2 was a 25 foot 3-pt attempt by Nick King with time expiring.

Not a good look.

In the wake of last night’s collapse against Tulsa, and the Nichols injury – hope for a strong finish to the season for Memphis (currently 17-12) has almost completely faded.

Which brings us to Wolken’s other, more broad based recent criticism, which he levied after the SMU game on Thursday night:

This is an important discussion because it speaks to (a) the overall condition of the Memphis program and (b) the prognosis for getting Memphis back to to the NCAA tournament and re-establishing itself as a nationally competitive brand.

So let’s analyze the accuracy of Wolken’s statement by looking at the current Memphis roster and comparing it to John Calipari’s last Memphis roster – the 2009 team that lost in the Sweet 16 to Missouri.

I chose the 2009 team as a comparison, instead of the 2008 Final-4 team, because I think we can all agree that 38-2 shouldn’t be “the expectation” on a regular basis.

So here’s the 2009 Roster:

Pos. # Name Height Weight Year Home town
F 0 Shawn Taggart 6 ft 10 in(2.08 m) 230 lb(104 kg) Jr Richmond, Virginia
G 1 Willie Kemp 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) 175 lb (79 kg) Jr Bolivar, Tennessee
F 2 Robert Dozier 6 ft 9 in (2.06 m) 215 lb (98 kg) Sr Lithonia, Georgia
G 3 Roburt Sallie 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) 186 lb (84 kg) So Sacramento, California
F 4 Pierre Henderson-Niles 6 ft 8 in (2.03 m) 310 lb(141 kg) Jr Memphis, Tennessee
G 5 Antonio Anderson 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m) 210 lb (95 kg) Sr Lynn, Massachusetts
G 10 Chance McGrady 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) 180 lb (82 kg) Sr Auburndale, Florida
G/F 11 Wesley Witherspoon 6 ft 9 in (2.06 m) 210 lb (95 kg) Fr Atlanta, Georgia
G 12 Tyreke Evans 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m) 195 lb (88 kg) Fr Chester, Pennsylvania
G 14 C. J. Henry 6 ft 3 in (1.91 m) 195 lb (88 kg) Fr Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
F 15 Matt Simpkins 6 ft 9 in (2.06 m) 215 lb (98 kg) Fr Sacramento, California
G 20 Doneal Mack 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) 175 lb (79 kg) Jr Charlotte, North Carolina
G 31 Preston Laird 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) 182 lb (83 kg) Fr Memphis, Tennessee
G 32 Jeff Robinson 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) 210 lb (95 kg) Fr Columbus, New Jersey
F 41 Ángel García 6 ft 11 in(2.11 m) 200 lb (91 kg) Fr Toa Baja, Puerto Rico

Let’s keep in mind that Angel Garcia never became eligible.

Matt Simpkins was kicked off the team in February.

Likewise, Jeff Robinson transferred out at mid-year.

Laird, McGrady and Henry were walk ons.

That leaves 9 rotation players on the 2009 roster – 5 in the back court (Mack, Anderson, Sallie, Kemp and Evans) and 4 in the front court (Taggert, Witherspoon, Henderson-Niles, and Dozier).

Let’s compare those 9 players to the rotation players (excluding walk-ons) on this year’s roster.

The 2015 roster features 5 guys in the back court (Kedren Johnson, Markel Crawford, Pookie Powell, Demarnier Cunningham, Avery Woodson) and 5 in the front court (Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin, Calvin Godfrey, Trahson Burrell, Nick King).

In making the comparison, 2 things are immediately apparent:

1. The raw talent in the front-court isn’t necessarily any better on the 2009 squad as compared to the 2015 squad. Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggert had highly successful careers at Memphis, but I’d be hard pressed to say they have superior athleticism, size or skill than Shaq Goodwin and Austin Nichols. Any difference in production would therefore have to be attributable to scheme, coaching and / or player development.

The other front court players on the 2 rosters (Henderson-Niles, Witherspoon / King, Godfrey, Burrell) are also interchangeable IMO.

2. The 2015 squad doesn’t have a Tyreke Evans or an Antonio Anderson. This is the major difference between an NIT entrant (at best) and a Sweet 16 team. I actually think that Markel Crawford, Kedren Johnson and Avery Woodson are nice pieces in the backcourt for the 2015 team – and all are talented enough to play at Memphis. I don’t think Crawford and Woodson are less physically capable than Sallie or Mack.

(There’s a whole discussion that could be had here about mentality, body language, the type of kid Calipari recruited vs. the type of kid Pastner recruits – but for purposes of this analysis I’m talking about pure physical talent). 

What the 2015 team clearly misses is (a) the presence of a transcendent superstar (Evans) and (b) the presence of a floor general / lock down defender leads by example (Anderson).

What Anderson brought was a mentality. It’s not as if he was a 5-star athlete or an eventual NBA player.

Dan Wolken is a former Tiger beat writer who’s had some strong takes of late on the state of the Tiger program.
Dan Wolken is a former Tiger beat writer who’s had some strong takes of late on the state of the Tiger program.

So I think the ultimate conclusion is that Wolken is wrong. I don’t think there’s anything wrong – from a talent perspective, with the players Pastner has assembled other than his lack of that a true NBA prospect in the back court (Evans) – and the development of a floor general that can lead the team (Anderson).

Perhaps guys like Markel Crawford and / or Austin Nichols can develop into the leaders this program has, from an outsiders perspective, lacked. Perhaps Dedric Lawson is the transcendent star the program needs.

Those are best case scenarios. The latter, in particular, is a stretch and shouldn’t be counted on.

Either way, I think Wolken’s assertion that “half” the players on the 2015 roster don’t belong at Memphis is a total stretch and inaccurate.