When John Calipari left for Kentucky back in April, Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson reassured a deflated Tiger fan base by promising a "wow hire."
That confidence dwindled as the search drug on. Rejection after rejection, including from such coaches as Bruce Pearl, Tim Floyd, and Scott Drew, revealed that Johnson may have overestimated the appeal of the job.
It became apparent that the new coach of Memphis would lack the instant credibility that had been promised.
The announcement that the Tigers had hired former assistant Josh Pastner to run the program was met with both surprise and skepticism. Most Tiger fans knew little to nothing about the former Arizona Wildcat.
They were introduced to a young, charismatic, intelligent prodigy who was already respected in recruiting circles. His first press conference provided a much needed dose of hope for disheartened fans, but there were still a number of questions to be answered.
As we approach the beginning of college basketball season, Pastner has already passed many of those tests with flying colors.
Of first priority to both the fans and Pastner himself was the current roster. The team was preparing to lose three of its stars from the previous year (Tyreke Evans, Robert Dozier, and Antonio Anderson) even before Calipari left.
With most of the recruiting class bolting for Kentucky as well, Pastner was left with a gutted roster comprised mostly of young, unproven bench players.
Pastner's biggest success thus far in his tenure as head coach has been convincing these players to stay. They had been recruited under the presumption that they would be playing for one of the greatest coaches in the country. Now they were expected to buy into the system of a first-time head coach who is too young to be their father.
Astoundingly, Pastner was able to persuade all returning players not to transfer. Considering how highly recruited all of these student-athletes were coming into college, this is truly a laudable accomplishment. Additionally, he convinced highly-regarded JUCO center Will Coleman to stay and replace the departing Shawn Taggert.
Also, former five-star guard and Memphis native Elliot Williams was sadly forced to transfer to Memphis from Duke due to an illness in his family. An unfortunate situation, but a great pick up for the Tigers.
As it stands, Memphis looks to have a talented, albeit thin, roster for the 2009-2010 season. The backcourt appears to be in good shape, with a number of contributors returning from last season including Doneal Mack, Willie Kemp, Roburt Sallie, and Wesley Witherspoon.
If Williams is granted a waiver from the NCAA and is able to play this season, this group could be one of the quickest, most athletic, and most feared in the country. Pastner has already noted that he is willing to work his style of play around his roster, so look for the Tigers to run at a very fast pace this year.
The frontcourt is where the biggest questions on this team exist, though. The only returning player from last year's group is Pierre Henderson-Niles, a physical specimen who lacks the basketball skill to be a consistent producer on the offensive end. Other options include Coleman and Angel Garcia, who will have to prove themselves before they can be counted on to be the answer down low.
There is reason for optimism, however, as all three players are talented enough to potentially become a reliable presence on the block.
Some might argue that Pastner's biggest success thus far won't have any affect at all on the Tigers in the upcoming season. This refers to the commitment of the Barton brothers, a duo of guards in the class of 2010 that validate Pastner's skills as a recruiter.
They, especially Will Barton, the larger and more highly touted of the two, will provide an instant boost of excitement and credibility to the program.
The Barton brothers represent the notion that the best of the best players can be drawn to Memphis even without the lure of Calipari. Further supporting this idea is the commitment of Latavious Williams, a five-star player in the class of 2009 who was set to come to Memphis before deciding to pursue a professional career internationally.
If Pastner is able lure Memphis-area prospects Joe Jackson and Tarik Black of White Station and Ridgeway, respectively, he will have truly created an identity for the program that the city will embrace.
Calipari rarely recruited local talent, and when he did he usually lost out on them (Thaddeus Young, Elliot Williams, J.P. Prince). A team comprised of the best players in the area supplemented by other national recruits would be something that Calipari never created, and that would truly set Pastner apart from his predecessor.
Any level of disappointment that program has produced during Pastner’s tenure as head coach is a reflection of Calipari and the athletic department, not Pastner himself.
The Derrick Rose SAT fiasco has yielded Memphis significant negative media attention. Pastner should be considered a sympathetic figure in this ordeal, though. Pastner was not with Memphis while Rose was being recruited.
R.C. Johnson left the new head coach completely in the dark, and has been rightfully chastised by the local media for doing so. Blame for any sanctions that the program receives from the NCAA should be attributed to Calipari and Johnson, not Pastner.
Despite that situation, the Tigers look poised to be successful in the upcoming year and in the future.
Pastner’s hard work and subsequent results have created a product that is far greater than anyone could have hoped for when he was hired. All the while, coach Pastner has done things the right way, which is something the fan base should be proud of.
Months ago, Memphis fans were dreading the upcoming season. They feared a steep drop off in the level of play and national attention.
Now, hope and optimism abounds. Fans are eager to see what this team can accomplish. Josh Pastner should be credited entirely for this excitement.
He may not have been the “wow hire” that fans were initially hoping for, but he sure is producing those kind of results.
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