Forgrave: Why this could be Memphis coach Josh Pastner’s year
Could this finally be Memphis head coach Josh Pastner’s year?
It is an inherently unfair question. Why? Because the implication is that Pastner has fallen short in years past, which is not quite true. It’s the type of "only March matters" thinking that plagues many of college basketball’s most successful coaches.
In the fifth year of his head-coaching career, Pastner has been wildly successful. His career winning percentage is .772, which is higher than that of Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim, and just short of his predecessor at Memphis, John Calipari. He’s won his conference the past two years. Last year Pastner’s Tigers went undefeated in Conference USA. I know that wasn’t exactly an elite conference, but winning all eight road conference games is an impressive achievement for any team.
Really, the question of whether or not Pastner should be revered in the basketball-mad city of Memphis — not to mention the question of whether he’ll "finally" get over the hump and into the second weekend of the NCAA tournament — shouldn’t ever have to be asked.
Except those pesky parts about March, and about winning the big games. In the NCAA tournament, he lost close games in the first round his first two tries. He started his career 0-13 against ranked teams before beating Oklahoma State earlier this year. After all these feast-on-the-little-guy, lose-to-the-big-guy moments, people around Memphis started to wonder: Was the 36-year-old Pastner good, but not good enough?
I asked Pastner about this recently. His answer? He was honest about the way coaches are judged, and was incredibly positive, as is his trademark.
"(Matthew) Dellavedova last year shot a three from the corner at the buzzer," Pastner recently told me, speaking of his first NCAA tournament victory, a 54-52 squeaker over St. Mary’s last year. "If he makes that shot, am I a bad coach? Do I get a new contract extension? He misses the shot, so instead I get a seven-year deal, and everyone’s telling me, ‘We can’t lose Josh Pastner.’ Good coach or bad coach, it’s a fine line. Basketball is such a fine line."
A fine and unfair line, one that’s drawn right around the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. Look at all the great coaches whose success we doubt because we value March wins 100 times more than January wins.
The ridiculously successful Rick Barnes of Texas hasn’t made a Sweet 16 since 2008, and fans started calling for his job last year. New UCLA head coach Steve Alford? Despite the fact he’s been a consistent winner at schools not known for hoops, people focus more on the fact he didn’t make the second weekend at Iowa or New Mexico, and has only made one second weekend in his career, back when he was at Southwest Missouri State. Even Georgetown’s John Thompson III, who made a Final Four as recently as 2007, is getting a bit of an unfair reputation for spring struggles, as Georgetown has been upset in the first weekend in every NCAA tournament it has played in since.
For Pastner, though, the first season in the new American Athletic Conference might be his time to prove that regular-season success can spill over into March. That’s because the American is the most competitive conference Pastner has ever coached in — the type of conference that will prepare his team for March — yet it’s also a conference where a hugely talented Memphis team could easily rise to the top.
While the conference currently ranks ninth in conference RPI — two spots better than the Conference USA that Pastner thoroughly dominated last season — there’s a lot of potentially very good teams there. Yet all these teams have flaws.
Louisville is the defending national champion, but it’s also figuring out a new identity with the midseason loss of both Chane Behanan (kicked off the team) and Kevin Ware (injured). UConn started hot but has dropped three of its last five games. SMU and Houston have some buzz around them but both programs are still in the building stages. You have to be impressed with Sean Kilpatrick and the Cincinnati team that went to Memphis and came away with a 16-point win last weekend — until you realize it’s the same Cincinnati team that lost by 17 in the biggest game of its non-conference slate, the crosstown rivalry game against Xavier.
Memphis can win this conference, especially with a Louisville team reinventing itself on the fly. (A side note: Pastner warned me last week not to underestimate Louisville. He thinks that even without Behanan, even with the team’s struggles on the boards, Louisville still has the talent to win it all. Not win it all as in win the American Conference. Win it all as in repeat as national champions. He expects Pitino to go small, and thinks that with the guard play that Louisville has — Russ Smith and Chris Jones make up what could be the best guard duo in the country — this team could end up being better without Behanan. And, he said, never underestimate this Hall of Fame coach’s ability to improvise.)
Weâll learn a lot about these two teams on Thursday night, when Memphis heads to Louisville.
And we’ll learn even more about Pastner when, after the most challenging conference slate in his young career, he takes his talented and experienced team into March with the goal of making that second weekend and slapping the doubters in the face.
What makes this Memphis team different than years past is that Pastner has four excellent seniors at guard, each of whom has scored at least 1,000 career points: leading scorer Joe Jackson, local kid Chris Crawford, physical juco transfer Geron Johnson and Missouri transfer Michael Dixon Jr., one of the most high-impact transfers in college basketball this year.
Add that experienced quartet of guards to a lineup that includes sophomore center Shaq Goodwin — who is averaging 12.3 points and 6.6 rebounds a game — and you got a team that has what it takes to win this conference and make some noise in March.
"I’m happy where we’re at," Pastner told me. "We’ve continued to get better. We’ve gotten a lot better since when we got our butts kicked by Oklahoma State earlier in the year. The American is a really tough basketball league, anywhere between a four- and six-bid league. (The 101-80 Oklahoma State loss) was good for us. We got our butts kicked. We got a course correction. We had to change some things. We needed to nip it in the bud, and we did."
The thing that makes Pastner stand out among college basketball coaches is his incessantly positive demeanor. On his voicemail he has an inspirational quote that he changes every couple weeks. In a game filled with gregarious, inspirational personalities, Pastner is right at the top.
My favorite player on this Memphis team is the one who I think best reflects its coach’s relentless positivity. It’s not any of those four senior guards. It’s Goodwin, the dreadlocked, happy-go-lucky big man who simply can’t wipe the smile off his face when he’s on the basketball court. I saw him up close over the summer, scrimmaging in tryouts for the Under-19 Team USA squad. I’ve never seen a more joyful player. It was contagious to watch, and it’s been contagious on this Memphis team. He reflects why Pastner might be the country’s most positive coach — something that will matter in March, when playersâ nerves are worn thin.
"You ever see the movie ‘Patch Adams’?" Pastner asked me. "Robin Williams dressed as a clown, made people smile and be happy, and it helped the body.
"Shaq has been one guy who’s been so good for us because his energy level is so great. His positive energy is extremely contagious. It radiates. It’s important for our team. When he doesn’t play like that, it affects our team in not the right way. We need him to be contagious with tremendous energy every time he’s on the floor."
All of this — the experience on this talented team, plus the positive energy emanating from Pastner and his players — is why I think this year will be Pastner’s best chance yet at overcoming that unfair, only-March-matters stigma that’s stuck to him.
"I believe everything about life is about energy," he said. "The game of basketball is about energy. The fans, the arena, the back and forth. In college basketball you can win a lot of games strictly on energy and emotion, getting 50-50 balls, playing hard. Not so in the NBA. In college you can beat teams just off energy and emotion."
Reid Forgrave, FOXSports.com Senior College Basketball Writer, has worked for The Des Moines Register, The Cincinnati Enquirer and The Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.