The fall portion of the 2009-‘10 college basketball season has been even more topsy-turvy than normal.
Out West, Oregon State, picked by many to be a serious contender in the PAC-10, lost to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Texas Tech in a three-day period. Idaho surprised Utah, then lost to Texas Southern a few days later. UCLA lost to Cal State Fullerton.
But the most shocking upheavals of the young season are the series of stunning losses by a SEC teams, which most certainly have gotten the attention of Memphis and any other solid program in the South.
The SEC, coming off a down season, was supposed to rebound this fall. The flagship program in the conference revival—Kentucky—has started in less than impressive fashion, however.
First was the 16-point opening night victory over lowly Morehead State. This was followed by a two-point defeat of Miami (Ohio) on a last-second jumper by freshman point guard John Wall, and a 102-92 defeat of mighty Sam Houston State.
All of these games were played at home.
But at least the Wildcats are still undefeated. That’s better than Georgia (defeated by Wofford), Alabama (upset by Ivy League’s Cornell), Auburn (done in by Missouri State) and the big shocker, Mississippi State bowing to Rider.
All of this serves to underscore the point that it’s never a good idea to overlook an opponent, no matter the team’s reputation or where the game is being contested.
“On paper, it’s probably clear as day,” junior post phenomenon Will Coleman comments. “But at the same time, we gotta go into every game like we’re playing the No. 1 team, because if we sleep on a team that’s less talented (than we are), according to statistics or whatever the case may be, we can get upset.”
Head Coach Josh Pastner eschews the idea of games that his team is “supposed” to win.
“I don’t think you can predict that your next game (is one) you’re ‘supposed’ to win,” he says earnestly. “Let me tell you something, we have to scrap to win the game. Everything we will have to do, we will have to earn.
“I told our team, ‘You better stay humble, you better stay grounded, you better keep your ego in check, deflate that ego. Do not be reading your own press clippings. The second you (get a big ego), that’s when you’re taken out.”
The Tigers’ first year front man doesn’t even watch many basketball games on TV anymore, setting aside that time to study film so he can better prepare his own team.
“I’m a basketball fan, but I’ll be honest with you, I really don’t watch that much,” he admits. “I’m a big film-watcher, in terms of our own team. I watch every day’s practice. I watch the tape at night. Obviously, the opponents we’re playing, I watch all their games for preparation.
“Once you’re in season, you really don’t have much time to watch other games, you’re so focused on your own.”
Sophomore reserve guard Preston Laird referred to his team's willingness to scrap during an interview in the locker room after a 92-59 demolition of Tennessee Tech.
“This team right now is gonna have to gain an identity,” Laird said. “The identity we’re going to have is that we’re grinders, we’re scrappy. We’re gonna play hard and get the job done.
“We don’t have the numbers on our front line, so there will be times when we have to go small. But we’re gonna scrap and play hard and get the job done.”
All Pastner really wants is for his own team to improve day-by-day. For an example of a player who has done just that, he points to Will Coleman.
“I think I’ve been very honest from the beginning about Will (Coleman), he’s a super athlete,” Pastner observes. “He’s going to have to keep improving his skillset every time he steps on the floor, and that’s including practice.
“The biggest thing he’s gotta get used to is the speed of the game. And he’s getting better and better every time out. Will Coleman is a blessing to be around, an unbelievable young man. We’re very fortunate to have a student-athlete like that in our program.”
Even with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays back-to-back, Pastner refuses to focus on anything more than one game, one day at a time.
“I can’t even think that far ahead,” he says honestly. “We’ll see how we play, how we’re doing, where we stand, and I think our schedule will be based on how guys are playing, how they’re feeling and where we are at that time period.”
Given the glaring deficiencies in two critical areas in the 81-49 victory versus Central Arkansas—not winning the battle of the boards (25 apiece) and too many turnovers, many unforced (14)—combined with the fact that there will be two-a-day practices this weekend, it is safe to say that Josh Pastner feels his team still has a lot of work to do.