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Pastner reflects on Nichols, upcoming challenges ahead

<p>Memphis head coach Josh Pastner urges on his squad against Central Florida at the UCF Arena in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, January 18, 2012. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)</p>
Memphis head coach Josh Pastner urges on his squad against Central Florida at the UCF Arena in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, January 18, 2012. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

Hours after the Memphis Tigers lost to Temple in the first round of the American Athletic Conference tournament in March, Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner was already on his way to Murfreesboro to watch the Tennessee high school state title game.

He had already moved on from last season’s disappointing 18-14 finish, one that saw the Tigers miss the postseason for the first time since 2000, and Pastner, who’s entering his seventh year as Memphis’ coach, said he is more locked in and motivated than ever.

“I know there will be a lot of eyes on us this season to see what we can do,” Pastner said.

Those same eyes have followed Pastner and his team in what has been a busy offseason for Tiger basketball. Two weeks after the loss to Temple, the University of Memphis announced Nick King and Pookie Powell were transferring from the program.

However, the biggest news of the offseason came in early July when star forward Austin Nichols shocked all of Tiger nation when he announced he wanted to leave the program.

The forward, who averaged 13 points, six rebounds and three blocks and was an All-American Athletic Conference First Team last season, ended up at the University of Virginia when they the saga finally ended. Pastner said it was the strangest event he’s encountered in his six years at Memphis.

“He had two really good years here,” Pastner said. “I didn’t see that coming. Neither did any of his teammates or neither did any of the staff. That being said, we move on. No ill will towards him. We move forward, and we’ve got to focus on the group that we have and we’re looking forward to the group that we have and I’m excited about this team. We’ve still got to get better, but I think this team in time is really going to have Tiger nation rally around them, as we compete for competitive excellence every time we step on the floor.”

In the middle of the King/Powell and Nichols’ transfers, Pastner also made a change to his coaching staff. Former Tiger assistant coach Damon Stoudamire returned from the University of Arizona after two seasons in May. He replaced the departing Aki Collins.

Pastner said he knows the former NBA point guard will do a good job, because of the familiarity built between the two in Stoudamire’s previous stint.

“He’s been here so he knows what I like and what I don’t like,” he said. “He’ll bring some good viewpoints from where he was with (Arizona) Coach (Sean) Miller, so I think it’s a positive move all the way around.”

In addition, the Tiger roster welcomes nine new players; highlighted by the arrival of the Lawson brothers from Hamilton High and Alabama transfer Ricky Tarrant.

If Memphis returns to the NCAA Tournament in 2016, a smooth transition from playing three around two (three out, two in) to four around one (four out, one in) will be crucial. Nichols’ departure leaves Memphis with three big men listed 6-foot-9 or above on the depth chart. Senior Shaq Goodwin and freshmen Dedric Lawson and Nick Marshall, the latter two reclassified from the class of 2016 to 2015.

Goodwin, who’s averaged 9.5 points and six rebounds in 101 games for the Blue and Gray, will be expected to step up and help replace Nichols’ production. The seventh-year coach said this is the best thing that could’ve happened to Goodwin.

“Shaq was good when Austin was out,” Pastner said. “He really stepped up. Having Austin out may be the best thing for Shaq, because it forces his alertness and awareness to be raised at an all-time high. There is no hiding. I mean all eyes are on me what I’m going to get to do this year without my post buddy. He’s got to step up and produce, and we’re looking forward to him doing that and very consistent from point a to point b.”

Pastner said, to this point, he’s enjoyed the new offense because it will give Memphis better spacing, a problem that repeatedly hurt the Tigers last season. Though he also said regardless of what offense they run, Memphis needs to take better care of the basketball. The Tigers finished tied for second in turnovers in the AAC last season with 13.3 per game.

This year that turnover number should improve, because the guard play should take a step forward. In Tarrant, Memphis will have a proven Division I scorer. Senior guards Trahson Burrell and Kedren Johnson both finished 2015 on a high after their early season struggles after both arrived via transfers last season.

Johnson, who was an All-SEC point guard in his time with the Vanderbilt Commodores, averaged 11.3 points and 4.7 assists in his last seven games in 2015.

“That’s the standard (he needs to play at),” said Pastner about Johnson, who averaged 6.7 points and 2.7 assists last season. “He’s got to stay healthy. He’s newly married. Got a family. He’s lost a lot of weight. Towards the end of the season he was really good for us. That’s how he was playing at Vanderbilt.”

Nevertheless, the pressure from the outside will be on Pastner to deliver this season. He said there hasn’t been a single game in his six years he hasn’t felt he had to win, and added saying there are some media members that just may not like him, whatever the reason it may be.

“They are just negative,” Pastner said. “Why be negative. Don’t just spew a bunch of stuff. Do your homework. Check your facts. Speak factually. Go on the truth. Don’t be a shock jock. No one wants to hear that. Maybe a few people do. I think the majority of the people want facts, and there are some media members that just aren’t good at that.”

The Tigers, who started fall practice last Saturday, will kick off their season with an exhibition against Lemoyne Owen Nov. 6 at FedExForum.

Memphis head coach Josh Pastner urges on his squad against Central Florida at the UCF Arena in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, January 18, 2012. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

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