AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Memphis coach Josh Pastner makes no bones about admiring Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and ripping off his rebounding drills and strategy.
The student takes on the teacher at approximately 2:45 p.m. EDT Saturday, when the Spartans face the Tigers for the right to advance to the NCAA Midwest regions Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.
“There’s no question that Coach Izzo is one of the great coaches in all of sport,” Pastner said. “He should be in the (National Collegiate Basketball) Hall of Fame. I mean, he’s going to be, so we might as well just put him in.
“… Everybody in the profession knows Coach Izzo’s reputation as a rebounding coach. Heck, I’ve watched five of his championship video products this offseason.
“Actually, our rebounding has been the best this year based on Coach Izzo’s drills. If we outrebound him somehow tomorrow, it’s a credit to Coach Izzo because I stole all those drills from championship video products in April.”
Pastner, 35, has won 106 games in four seasons with Memphis, which went 16-0 in the Conference USA regular season before winning the conference tournament. However, the Tigers have played just one team in the current AP Top-25, No. 2 Louisville, which won in Memphis, 87-78 on Dec. 15.
Pastner is a longtime prodigy. He published the “Josh Pastner Scouting Report” on Houston high school talent — when he was 13.
His father handed over the reins of the Houston Hoops AAU team to Josh when he was 16. He walked on at Arizona, where he didn’t play much; however, he did get a 1997 national championship ring, picked Coach Lute Olson’s brain and ended up on his coaching staff.
“You know, I was still a GA (graduate assistant) when I was his age when he started,” said Izzo, who has won 438 games and made it to six Final Fours with a national championship in 2000. “So I have great respect for Josh.
“I remember him writing me letters when was a GA/player at Arizona, and the guy was born to be a coach. You know, he puts his whole heart and soul into it … I think he’s going to end up being a great coach before it’s over.”
Izzo, 58, said Pastner was job-hunting with the letters he sent and got a premier head-coaching job by replacing John Calipari in 2009 at age 31.
As eloquent as Izzo and Pastner are, the game’s determining factor was most succinctly described by Tigers forward Shaq Goodwin.
“You can say it’s going to come down to the ‘bigs’ because both teams have really good guard play,” he said
Point guards Keith Appling (13.6 points, 3.5 assists, 40 treys) of MSU and Joe Jackson (13.7 points, 4.9 assists, 38 treys) of Memphis are mirror images.
Spartans shooting guards Gary Harris and his Tigers counterpart, Geron Johnson, both are double-figure scorers and quality defenders.
Memphis swing man Adonis Thomas should match up well with Branden Dawson of the Spartans. Both are very athletic and able to rake the boards and score.
But MSU center Derrick Nix and power forward Adreian Payne can play a power game that could challenge Memphis to match. Their production is not that much better than their counterparts, but Nix and Payne have played considerably tougher competition in the Big Ten.
Nix, who had 23 points and 15 rebounds in Thursday’s win over Valparaiso, is averaging 9.9 points and 6.5 rebounds. Tigers starter Shaq Goodwin (7.6 points, 4.5 rebounds) is lean and might not match up as well as reserve Tarik Black (8.1 points, 4.9 rebounds).
“As far as Michigan State goes with their bigs, they have good bigs in Nix and Adreian Payne (10.3 points, 7.4 rebounds),” Black said. “But at the same time, I consider myself a prominent threat.
“So as much as we could talk about how their bigs play, they have to worry about us on the other end, as well as with me and Shaq and D.J. (Stephens).”
Stephens jumped out as a rising star with eight blocks along with a couple crazy dunks in Thursday’s narrow win over St. Mary’s. He averages 7.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, and has an astounding 91 blocks. The entire Spartans team has 129 blocks.
According to Pastner, Stephens got a scholarship one week before classes started in 2009, only because an earlier commitment was injured and decided to stay in France.
“D.J. was a zero-star recruit,” Pastner said.
Stephens has developed into a potential second-round pick in the NBA Draft and a force the Spartans will have to contend with Saturday.