Unlike in recent seasons, Memphis is not the overwhelming favorite to win Conference USA in 2009-10.
The reason why became clear last week when the Tigers held their first formal practice under new coach Josh Pastner, who was promoted from his assistant's role to replace John Calipari, who left for Kentucky at the end of the last season. The Tigers had 12 players available for practice, including just eight on scholarship.
Forward Angel Garcia will miss the season after the tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in mid-September. Garcia's injury is just the latest in a string of injuries and defections for Memphis.
Forward Latavious Williams, a likely starter, decided to forgo college and jumped directly from high school to professional basketball overseas. Forward Shawn Taggart decided to leave for the NBA, though he was not drafted. Martin Ngaloro, a forward recruit from France, tore knee ligaments in August and remained in his home country to rehabilitate.
Thus, the Tigers will enter their Nov. 13 opener against Jackson State with an extremely thin roster and with only a slim chance of repeating last season's 33-4 record. They have gone a combined 138-14 the last four seasons.
"It's scary, the depth we don't have, because I see it and everybody sees it," junior guard Roburt Sallie told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "We've got to keep guys healthy. One guy gets hurt that we're counting on, the whole season could look a lot different."
Senior guard Doneal Mack is the lone returning starter. He averaged 8.7 ppg/2.1 rpg/1.2 apg last season and his 10.6 turnover rate was 39th in the nation.
Memphis is also spending the preseason learning a new offense. Pastner prefers a motion offense instead of Calipari's dribble-drive system.
"It was raggedy at times, but I wanted to go up and down [the court]," Pastner said after the first practice. "I knew we weren't ready with the conditioning yet or just being able go in sync, but I wanted the staff to have a gauge for our starting point so we can watch the film, show the players, break things down to show them what we're doing right and wrong. This is the first time they've gone up and down in a real organized setting with a coach there since March, and it's going to take more time for guys to get a feel for each other."
Volunteering on Defense
Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is concentrating on improving his team's defense during early practices.
"We're trying to teach, and defensively we're working on not giving up dribble penetration," Pearl told the Knoxville News-Sentinel. "We've got to get help on both sides of the ball. That means working on positioning, stance, vision, the fundamentals and all the while we're getting them to compete."
Tennessee ranked 73rd in adjusted defense last season with a 96.0 mark as it finished 21-13. The Volunteers were 12st in adjusted offense with a 115.0 mark.
"We lost too many close games last year, and how many did we lose because we didn't get a stop or a rebound?" Pearl said. "This is not a part of our identity. This is not a part of our makeup. Things have got to change."
Eight of Tennessee's losses last season were by single digits, including getting edged 77-75 by Oklahoma State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Senior forward Tyler Smith, Tennessee's star player, is all for his team's commitment to defense.
"You look back to last year, and we lost six or seven games because we didn't make a stop or get a rebound," Smith said. "That's something we can control. You get those six or seven losses, and put them on the wins side of the standings, and we're a No. 1 or No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament."
Smith (17.4/5.8/3.4) leads the way as Tennessee returns all five starters, including senior forward Wayne Chism (13.7/8.0/1.2), senior guard J.P. Prince (9.9/4.2/3.1), sophomore guard Scott Hopson (9.2/2.7/1.4) and senior guard Bobby Maze (8.2/2.4/3.2). Chism was 50th in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage (23.2) and Smith was 81st in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.1).
It is safe to say no program is the country is in greater turmoil right now than Binghamton, which made its first trip to the NCAA Tournament last season. Six players, including three returning starters, have been dismissed from the program this month and the Bearcats are left with just four scholarship players.
The entire starting backcourt of D.J. Rivera (20.0/6.5/1.1), Tiki Mayben (11.5/4.1/4.7) and Malik Alvin (11.5/3.0/3.7) has been tossed. Mayben was arraigned in his hometown of Troy, N.Y. on felony cocaine charges. The other five players were released for what Binghamton sports information director John Hartrick told the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin "not toeing the line."
Rivera was 42nd in the nation in turnover rate (10.6), 58th in percentage of shots (31.5) and 73rd in percentage of minutes (87.6).
Thus, Binghamton will have no returning starters when they open the season Nov. 14 against Bloomsburg. That is quite a fall from last year's 23-9 finish under Kevin Broaddus, who is now under fire as he begins his third season as coach.
Broaddus has repeatedly declined to comment on the situation.
BYU's Rose Cancer-Free
Brigham Young coach Dave Rose cannot wait to get started on practice after tests revealed that his body has no signs of the cancerous tumor he had removed from his pancreas and spleen in June. Rose said there will be no restrictions on him when the Cougars open their season Nov. 13 against Bradley.
"It's just on how I feel," Rose said. "I need to be a little bit more aware, and when I do have issues, those need to be discussed. When it seems like before, I just felt like if I wasn't feeling good today, it was 'let's go coach and I hope I feel better tomorrow.' That's about the only issue that I would see would be a little bit different."
Brigham Young was 25-8 last season and lost to Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With four starters back, the Cougars figure to be a strong contender in the Mountain West Conference this upcoming season.
Junior guard Jimmer Fredette (16.2/3.0/4.1) and senior forward Jonathan Tavernari (15.7/7.2/1.8) lead the way and are joined by junior guard Jackson Emery (7.8/3.8/3.0) and senior center Chris Miles (7.1/4.0/1/3). Tavernari was 29th in the nation in turnover rate (10.3), 84th in percentage of shots (30.5) and 90th in defensive rebounding percentage (21.8) while Emery was 54th in offensive rating (120.9), 72nd in true shooting percentage (62.1) and 74th in effective field goal percentage (59.3).
"I'm so grateful for all the support that I have received from every possible venue around -- from other schools, other coaches, fans, local administration, conference administration and the media," Rose said. "I mean, the support my family and I have received has been terrific and has helped us in many, many ways."
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.