Memphis Tigers' Backcourt is One of Nation's Best

By Bryan Heater
Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The start of the 2013-14 college basketball season is just over a month away. October marks the beginning of fall practices for programs around the country in preparation for the the upcoming campaign.

Head coach Josh Pastner and the Memphis Tigers will enter the year ranked in the top 20 nationally. The expectations are high and the cupboard is full of talent, particularly in the backcourt. Pastner has his most talented group of guards yet coming into his fifth year leading the team. The unit is senior-laden and possesses tons of experience. In its first season in the AAC, that is great for Memphis as the schedule is much tougher.

Returning are seniors Chris Crawford, Joe Jackson and Geron Johnson. Each was a big part of a 31-5 record last year and will be counted on to contribute heavily this season.

Jackson surpassed the 1,000 career-point threshold as a junior and displayed the skills that made him highly ranked coming out of high school. He posted career highs with 13.6 points per game, 4.8 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals.

Everything on the offensive end starts with Jackson. He can make you pay in a variety of ways. If defenders play him too close, he’ll dribble by them to the basket. Once passed the defender, he either goes to the rim if open or finds open teammates for easy shots. If they play off too far, he can knock down the three-point shot. Jackson even led the Tigers in three-point percentage at 44.7, well above the team average of 37.2.

Jackson really came into his own last season, being named the C-USA Player of the Year. There’s a ton of talent, however, he is the leader of this team. But one thing that has made him so good is the talent around him in the backcourt. Where to even begin?

Crawford, along with Jackson, is one of the two remaining recruits from the prized 2010 class. The scouting report on him coning out of high school in Memphis was that once he got past half court, he was basically in range to shoot. He struggled with consistency for much of his first two years and from Dec. to Jan. last season, Crawford could barely get the ball to go into the hoop.

That began to change, though, and in the C-USA Tournament, Crawford showed that he can take over a game when he gets hot. He scored 77 points in three tournament games, averaging 25.7 ppg and setting a tournament record with 19 three-pointers on his way to Tournament MVP honors. He was the reason the Tigers prevailed in the championship game against Southern Miss, scoring 20 of his 23 points in the final 13 minutes. He wasn’t the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year for no reason. Crawford will stretch the floor and give teammates more space to work, such as Johnson.

Johnson is electric with the ball in space, possessing quickness and ball-handling skills to blow past defenders and finish strong at the rim. He’s also a threat to step back and hit the three, hitting 35.0 percent and ranking second on the team with 42 shots made from downtown.

All-around, you could make a case that Johnson is the Tigers’ best guard. He can score and makes good passes, but even more important, he is a great defender. Countless times last year, his defense led to easy fast-break points for the Tigers. Johnson has NBA potential and with everything negative that happened in his past, he should be able to relate to Michael Dixon, who missed last year after being kicked off Missouris team for his second sexual assault accusation, though, he was never charged for either.

Dixon, also a Sixth Man of the Year but in the Big XII, averaged 13.5 ppg and 3.3 assists for Missouri in 2011-12. He’s a pure point guard that gives Memphis yet another dangerous scoring threat and pass specialist.

And not to forget freshmen Markel Crawford, Kuran Iverson and Nick King. Crawford could find it hard to get minutes this year, but Iverson and King should play key roles. Both are good at creating shots and have a ton of upside. Their skill sets and size could make them Memphis’ top NBA prospects down the road.

With all the pieces in the backcourt, Pastner and fans have to be excited about the potential for this group. The Louisville Cardinals are a favorites to repeat as national champions this year, but Memphis should have something to say before it’s all said and done.

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