In 2014, the Memphis men’s basketball program was a force. Then-head coach Josh Pastner was wrapping up his fifth season at the helm, having taken the reins from John Calipari in 2009, and had the Tigers in the Round of 32 for the second year in a row, their fourth consecutive tournament appearance.
Now, just three years later, Memphis has hired a new coach in Tubby Smith, missed the last three tournaments, and lost the majority of its veteran talent to transfer. Again.
First came the loss of guard Craig Randall and forward Chad Rykhoek, who went public with their intentions to play elsewhere in March. The latest blow came last Wednesday, when the standout brother duo of Dedric and K.J. Lawson announced their intentions to transfer from the program; they were followed by junior guard Markel Crawford and freshman Keon Clergeot, who announced their decisions to find a new school after the Lawson brothers left.
In all, the Tigers are losing six still-eligible players that contributed an average of 58.4 points per game during the 2017 season, a staggering loss for a program that just a few years ago went to eight tournaments in nine years. Now, they’d be fine with a shot at making the second round of NIT.
It’s not an aberration—the 2015 postseason saw star forward Austin Nichols transfer to Virginia after a legal battle with Memphis over his release (he was kicked out before even playing an ACC game). He was followed by RaShawn Powell, who transferred to La Salle, and Nick King, who transferred to Alabama.
And while he makes an easy scapegoat for local columnists, this year’s underperforming season and mass exodus of veteran players isn’t entirely Smith’s fault. The blame that did fall on him had to do with his plans for the offense differing from those of Pastner, who recruited all the departing players. In the case of Randall and Rykhoek, the two reserves didn’t fit into Smith’s system well—Randall was a point guard that was asked to change to a shooting guard and Rykhoek, who just transferred in from Baylor and continued to battle injuries, didn’t fit well with their interior system.
The situation surrounding the Lawson brothers, however, is not on Smith; it’s one that dates back to a 2015 decision made by Pastner.
The Lawson brothers aren’t just a couple of Plumlees that signed on to stick around for four or five years and finally become real threats as seniors. In their first two years, the duo have proven they have the talent to start or at least play heavy minutes at any program in the country. Dedric is the star, going for 19.2 points and 9.9 boards per game this season, nabbing the 2015 AAC rookie of the year award, and earning first-team all-conference honors in 2016. K.J. tore his Achilles and redshirted his freshman year; he won the rookie of the year award this season after while contributing 12.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per night.
Being from Memphis, they valued the opportunity to play close to home and decided to sign on with Pastner’s program in 2015 (Dedric is a year younger; he reclassified to enter college the same year as his brother.) From afar, their decision doesn’t appear that complicated—they signed to an in-state team with a good young coach that was one year removed from a tournament appearance. The reality of the situation, however, is a bit more icky.
While Dedric had Kentucky itching to sign him in high school, his decision to go with Calipari’s old team rather than his current one was pushed over the edge for one simple reason—Memphis was willing to give his dad a job. He even went on-record to say as much, per CBS Sports:
“All the schools kind of cut themselves short, because Memphis was one of my top schools, but I wasn’t all the way in towards Memphis,” Lawson said at the LeBron James Skills Academy on Thursday. “Kentucky stayed hard on me, so it’s like Kentucky and Memphis that have been recruiting me the hardest.”
Dedric Lawson admits it’s not a done deal yet, but Pastner hiring his father would sway him in the direction of the Tigers.
“That would probably seal the deal for me, to commit to Memphis,” he said.
Six days later, Pastner made it clear he had no qualms about taking the Jim Harbaugh route, hiring the brothers’ father, Keelon Lawson, as an assistant coach. Prior to the Memphis gig, Lawson was a high school head coach and had led his team at Hamilton High to an undefeated season and state title with his sons on the roster.
Pastner desperately wanted Dedric and K.J., but for those paying attention, it was clear he was also planning ahead—two other Lawson brothers, Chandler, a top-ranked Class of 2019 recruit, and Jonathan, now a ninth grader that will supposedly be better than all of them, were coming through the pipeline and he wanted dibs. Hiring Keelon gave him a seat at the dinner table with two potential top-100 recruits every night, and as a January quote from K.J. would show, Pastner knew exactly how family-oriented the Lawson household was.
But the ethically murky decision proved not to be a complete guarantee of success—even with two consecutive rookie of the years on their roster, the Tigers never climbed out of their 2014-15 rut. The following season, the Tigers went 19-15 and finished seventh in an AAC won by Temple.
Come the spring of 2016, the Memphis administration had seen enough from Pastner. On April 8, Georgia Tech announced it had hired Pastner to take over its program. Memphis was more than happy to pay the $1.255 million it contractually owed Pastner, as it wanted a coaching change but also didn’t want to pay his $10.6 million buyout.
In came Tubby Smith, who guided Memphis to fifth in the conference standings and did not make the cut for the NIT. The Tigers looked solid through the first week of February, starting 18-7; the home stretch was a brutal showing, though, as they’d limp to a 1-6 finish, ending the season with a 30-point blowout loss to UCF in the AAC tournament.
When Smith arrived, he took a look at his coaching staff and made one key, and pointed, change—he demoted Keelon Lawson, who was moved from his role on the bench to the team’s director of player personnel. Despite the fact that the Lawson brothers continued to star and play upwards of 30 minutes per night, the demotion of their father and the losing was enough for the two combo guards to leave the program. In an interview, Keelon said the move was because Dedric had grown too large for the AAC, but that his younger two sons would “always” look to play for the Tigers—he also noted that he didn’t like being demoted or being left behind by the team bus on a road game at Temple.
On Monday, the brothers announced their destination—Kansas, fresh off losing Frank Mason and Josh Jackson, will secure two of the most coveted transfers in all of college basketball. Keelon reportedly won’t be following them to Lawrence, though Bill Self has no issue with hiring a father to nab a heralded recruit. In 2005, he hired Ronnie Chalmers, another former high school coach, as an assistant to secure the commitment of his son, Mario. Mario declared for the NBA Draft in April 2008; Ronnie ‘resigned’ in August.
A handful of transfers the season following a coaching change is not a new phenomenon. Neither are sports dads—especially those with multiple children boasting pro-level talent, like, say, LaVar Ball—attempting to leverage their offspring into a new form of compensation (see: Danny and Ed Manning).
But Memphis, a once-solid, perennially ranked program, now finds itself in a particularly sticky situation—they let the appeasement and following mismanagement of a sports dad fuck up the already diminishing core of their 2018 team, and in their rush to replace a young gun with experience, failed to hire a coach that was willing to suck it up and play the nepotism game. Now, the Lawson brothers, like Pastner, will head off to succeed elsewhere after establishing themselves at Memphis. No hard feelings, though.
Correction (10:14 a.m.): The piece originally stated that Memphis made back-to-back Sweet 16s; the Tigers actually had two consecutive appearances in the Round of 32.