The Memphis Tigers men’s basketball team enters the 2013-14 season with the highest expectations they have had since the departure of John Calipari.
Josh Pastners‘ squad has four senior guards (Joe Jackson, Gerron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon), a sophomore who was a McDonald’s All-American (Shaq Goodwin), and the third-best class of incoming freshman. Things were set up perfectly for Memphis to succeed as they prepare to join the new American Athletic Conference until senior forward and projected starter David Pellom decided to have knee surgery, causing him to miss five weeks of action.
I say “decided” because Pellom has been dealing with discomfort in his knee for the majority of the offseason and could have had surgery much sooner. Now the Tigers are left with no other option than to throw freshman Austin Nichols into the fire. Nichols is a five-star recruit who had a storied high school career in Memphis, but the team had hopes of bringing him along slowly.
There were reports of him having a hard time dealing with the speed and physicality of the college game during pre-season workouts. Memphis did play against Baylor in one of those super-secret scrimmages that no one is allowed to watch, but somehow the results always get out, and the whispers leaving that scrimmage were that Nichols excelled.
Pellom wasn’t projected to be a star or really a difference-maker for this year’s Memphis squad given their depth on the wing, but having a veteran presence in the paint is never a bad thing. While Pellom is out the Tigers, will play Oklahoma State and Florida with the Old Spice Classic in between, which features Oklahoma State, LSU, Purdue, St. Joseph’s, Siena and Washington State. The Tigers could very easily have three of four losses before they even get into conference play.
Having Nichols make an impact immediately is going to be imperative for the Tigers. Other than Nichols and Goodwin, the only other bigs on the Memphis roster are Hippolyte Tsafack, who has never played more than 5.3 minutes per game in a season, and freshman Dominic Woodson, who is over 300 pounds and is not prepared to log big minutes in a major college basketball game.
If Nichols cannot adjust to the speed and physicality quickly, the Tigers will be forced to utilize their abundance of wings and play some small-ball.
Nichols reminds me of a shorter Cody Zeller. He is long, runs the floor well, can score in the post or knock down jumpers and rebounds well, but he is thin. Nichols has very high basketball IQ and will fit in well with the starting lineup. The worry is that he might defer more to the ball-dominating guards than a senior like Pellom would have.
Nichols will need to be assertive, get position on the block and demand the ball. If he can get himself involved in the game, there is no doubt about his abilities on the court — but will he be given that chance?
Follow Robbie Marbury on Twitter @rmarbury