CBSSports.com national college basketball columnist Gary Parrish has a unique perspective on Memphis basketball, living 20 miles from the Tigers campus. We caught up with Gary to get his thoughts on Friday's matchup.
WildcatAuthority.com: In general, what are your impressions of the Memphis team?
Gary Parrish: They're talented but they've been talented since November. That's why they were a preseason Top 20 team. It's not because of what they were returning, it's because they were bringing in a really good class that was supposed to bring a bigger immediate impact than it actually had.
From November up until about a week ago, they've been a mess on the court and off the court. I said back in December when fans were questioning Josh and saying he was in over his head, all the stuff that happens when you're losing games, the day Josh becomes a good college coach is going to be the day Joe Jackson starts playing the way he was supposed to play.
You saw that happen over the last week and then suddenly, Memphis is in the NCAA tournament. I don't think it's a coincidence that they started playing well at the exact same time as Joe Jackson started playing like a McDonald's All-American.
WildcatAuthority.com: Would you attribute the team's inconsistency this year to Josh not doing a good job, the team's youth, a combination or what?
Gary Parrish: I think it's a combination of a lot of things. You have to remember, when Memphis was preseason Top 20, it was based on the following things. If you went back to October, you'd say the starting lineup would project of Joe Jackson, Will Barton, Jelan Kendrick, Wesley Witherspoon and Will Coleman. The top player off the bench would probably be Angel Garcia. Those would be your top six players.
Kendrick got kicked off the team before the season started, Witherspoon had surgery and was suspended, ultimately missing about five weeks, Garcia left the program in the middle of the season to take a pro contract overseas, so if you go back to October, three of the top six projected players, two of them are no longer on the team and one of them missed a significant amount of time.
Other than that, Joe Jackson, up until very recently, hasn't played close to what he was supposed to be, and Will Coleman, who was projected a second round draft pick when the season began, ended up just being a role player, so you can see why they didn't live up to the preseason Top 20 ranking.
The other side of that is the people in Memphis weren't frustrated because the team wasn't Top 20; they were frustrated because they struggled in Conference USA. They lost to East Carolina, got blown out by UTEP and lost to Rice. I think some of it falls on Josh and some of it falls on circumstance.
The roster that they thought would be in place, wasn't in place. Whatever questions there were about the team and the program, Joe Jackson and Josh, people in the city are no longer worried the way they were as recently as a week ago.
People are excited now and whether it's real or not, people believe what they saw the last few games is more representative of what that program is now, as opposed to what they saw over the last four months.
WildcatAuthority.com: What's your perception of the job Josh is doing?
Gary Parrish: Given what he had to walk into, which was the incredible task of following Cal, when he got the job he was 32, first time head coach, replacing an icon, and a guy who a lot of people think is the absolute best program builder in the country in a city like Memphis where the passion for that program is overwhelming, I think Josh has done about as well as you can do.
When I talked to coaches who were candidates for the Memphis job, none of them wanted to replace Cal. What happens when you only go 15-1 in Conference USA and you're not ranked 7th in the country, you're ranked 17th? Fans are gonna be pissed off. Nobody wanted to step into that.
That's how he ended up getting the job. They didn't want to hire Josh Pastner; they panicked and couldn't get anybody else to take the job. If you're Josh Pastner, you're not going to turn that job down. Memphis doesn't have as many fans as Kentucky, but the passion among the fan base is similar.
They sell out the building for Conference USA games. They don't play UCLA one game and Washington the next. It's Rice and SMU and they get 17,000 still. I host a radio show there and we talk Tiger basketball 12 months out of the year.
In television ratings, they destroy the Grizzlies. If you put Memphis and SMU at noon on a Saturday and the Lakers and Grizzlies at 7:00 on a Saturday, in the exact same building, the Tigers would outdraw. That's a fact. Josh walked into a situation where the pressure was immense but he did everything right off the court.
Public relations, recruiting, but at the end of the day, it's a bottom line business, and when they started losing this year, people became frustrated and wanted answers. I think maybe he mishandled things this season but I also think he's a second year head coach who is learning on the job.
You know Josh, he's not going to embarrass his players; his only weapon in terms of discipline is to sit them down. When you start sitting people down, it either does one of two things, it changes them or just pisses them off.
I think he went through some things this year where, staying true to his core, maybe made his players question him a little bit and made the fan base question him a little bit. You look at him now and suddenly he's in the NCAA tournament and his name will start being linked to jobs around the country. That's the way it works.
WildcatAuthority.com: Switching gears to Arizona, what's your impression of the job Sean Miller is doing so far?
Gary Parrish: It's tremendous. Everybody likes to think that it's easy to just come in and win at a tradition rich program, but tell Tom Crean how easy it is. It's not easy to rebuild a program that's sort of been a little bit of a mess for a variety of reasons. Sean has done it as quickly as anybody could have expected.
Obviously getting Derrick Williams was a huge, huge deal and maybe a little bit like Jeff Capel at Oklahoma getting Blake Griffin, although that situation obviously turned the wrong way and I don't anticipate that happening to Sean Miller.
I remember writing during the coaching search that they started off going after Jamie Dixon and Rick Pitino and all the names you hear pop up every time, but if you can hire Sean Miller, that's a good hire.
I don't know what I expected him to do right away, but I always thought he would get that place in the right spot and he certainly has. Arizona is a terrific basketball program historically and they're lucky they were able to talk Sean into making that move.
WildcatAuthority.com: What are your expectations for Friday's game?
Gary Parrish: Arizona is better than them. They've been better for four months. Memphis might have better pieces one through eight, but the best player on the court, by far, is Derrick Williams.
If you just watched Memphis the last few games and you Arizona's losses to USC and Washington, I think you can talk yourself into how this is going to work in Memphis' favor. The reality is they've been playing for four months, and over a four month period, it's been pretty clear that Arizona is better than Memphis.
That said, it's a 40-minute basketball game and neither team is the type of team that will overwhelm the other, I don't think. It can go either way, like a lot of 5/12's do, but Arizona is favored for a reason and when I filled out my bracket, I picked Arizona to win the game.
The Arizona program is further along in the rebuilding process than Memphis' program is. Let's look in four to five years and see where the two programs are, but right now I think Arizona is more reliable than Memphis. Memphis can play well and it's played well at times this year, but it's also a team that has gotten blown out by 27 at UTEP.
I guess I trust Arizona more than I trust Memphis and if both teams play their best game, Arizona will win, but as you know, it doesn't always go that way.
Five Questions with Gary Parrish
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