Memphis’ Pastner steals the spotlight

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Memphis coach Josh Pastner was a media favorite at the Palace of Auburn Hills before he took the podium on Thursday.

By the time he stepped down, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer — and he’s still got two days to go. Memphis hung on to beat Saint Mary’s 54-52, and will play Michigan State on Saturday.

Pastner began his entertaining run on Wednesday, when he went on an extended rant about the level of play the Tigers face in little-regarded Conference USA.

“To say that we haven’t been battle-tested is ridiculous,” Pastner said, answering a question actually addressed to one of his players. “Do you recognize that every single time we step on the floor that we get everyone’s best shot? We’ve won 26 straight Conference USA games.

“Every time we step on the floor, we get everyone’s best shot. That means if we’re playing East Carolina, they have a gold-out. If we’re playing Marshall, they have a green-out. If we’re playing Southern Miss, they have a black-out.”

Thursday, despite his team almost blowing a game they had in control, he was just as defiant. When asked about the “pressure” he was facing to win after losing to Saint Louis in last year’s round-of-64, he went on a tirade about the true meaning of the word.

“When I took over this program — that was pressure,” he said. “I had about five scholarship players, and I was replacing a coach that had the greatest run in history of college basketball. Think about that. John Wooden never did that. Dean Smith and Bobby Knight never did it.”

Pastner was referring to John Calipari, who had gone 137-14 between 2006-09. While it was the most wins by one school in four years, it’s hard to say that it was the greatest stint in NCAA history. After all, the Tigers only reached the Final Four once, blowing a big lead to lose the 2008 title game to Kansas.

(Pastner didn’t mention that the 38 wins and championship-game appearance in 2008 were later vacated and the program put on probation, making it even tougher to justify as a legendary era of college hoops.)

Pastner, who had spent one year on Calipari’s staff, took over after the 2009 season, and to hear him tell it, the cupboard was beyond bare.

“I had to keep the program together. I gave D.J. (Stephens) a scholarship without having ever seen him — that’s how much I needed players,” Pastner said of the player who blocked eight shots against Saint Mary’s. “D.J. cried when he found out that he was going to get a scholarship, but I was the one crying the first time I saw him dribble the ball up a floor.”

Pastner, of course, pointed out his (large) role in turning Stephens into a valuable starter, making it into a metaphor for the way he had single-handedly rebuilt the Tigers program.

There were times, though, when Pastner was willing to spread his love to others. He gave a long tribute to Tom Izzo, expressing outrage that the Michigan State coach isn’t already in the Hall of Fame — the Tigers play the Spartans on Saturday — and then he turned his attention to referee Roger Ayers.

Pastner hadn’t been asked about Ayers, but that didn’t stop him from launching into accolades for the official’s bravery.

“He’s a fireman who was in a building — a burning building,” Pastner said, in response to a question about a video review before the final play. “He barely got out, and he knows he was blessed to get the one breath he needed in order to make it out.

“He’s a first responder. He’s a real hero.”

At the end of the day, though, Pastner is the true hero … at least to sportswriters needing an interesting quote on deadline.