Memphis Tigers Coach Josh Pastner Walks the Tightrope
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Is it possible Josh Pastner is on the hot seat at the University of Memphis in just his second season? The Tigers and the Bluff City are reeling after three embarrassing losses in their last four games, including a 27-point nationally televised thrashing at UTEP.
Pastner and his team now find their season on life-support, needing a miracle run through the Conference USA Tournament to avoid missing the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season.
Memphis has a passionate fanbase, who talk Tiger Basketball 24/7 365 days a year. In the last few weeks, this talk has turned to questions about if Pastner is in over his head. Some have gone as far to suggest a change at the first seat of the Tiger bench. Is the once promising coaching and recruiting wonderkid really overwhelmed or has he just been hit with the perfect storm?
It was always going to tough for Josh Pastner to follow John Calipari. Calipari won 30-plus games in an NCAA record four consecutive years and took the Tigers within a play of the 2008 National Championship. He energized a basketball-hungry fanbase, spoiling them with unheralded success in the process.
The Great Escape
While it is debatable if it was intentional or not, John Calipari imploded the University of Memphis basketball program when he left. What would have been the top recruiting class in the country, including DeMarcus Cousins, Xavier Henry and likely John Wall, soon disintegrated to just junior college big-man Will Coleman.
In addition, junior power forward, Shawn Taggart, left to pursue a professional basketball. Pastner was left with just seven returning players and very little time to fill holes.
Prior to the 2009-2010 season, expectations were at the lowest levels seen since Calipari last missed the NCAA Tournament in 2005. Pastner and the Tigers would catch a big break when former McDonald's All-American Elliot Williams received a compassionate transfer waiver from the NCAA so he could immediately play home near his ailing mother.
The scrappy Tigers, led by Williams, just missed an NCAA Tournament bid while finishing second in Conference USA.
The 2010 offseason brought even more transition for the Tigers than did the 2009 offseason. The Tigers lost five scholarship players to graduation or transfer, leaving just three regular rotation players.
Pastner and his staff would fill the voids with a consensus top three recruiting class, including three McDonald's All-Americans in Will Barton, Jelan Kendrick, and hometown hero, Joe Jackson. National championship expectations quickly re-entered the minds of Tiger fans.
This season started with a sold-out Memphis Madness featuring personalized videos from Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans. Carmelo Anthony appeared on the jumbotron picking fellow Baltimore native Will Barton as his dunk contest favorite. That would be the pinnacle of the season, as things quickly began to unravel.
Jelan Kendrick was suspended and then subsequently transferred to Ole Miss. One of the upperclassmen Pastner expected to lean on, Angel Garcia, abruptly left midseason to pursue a professional career in Spain. Junior forward Wesley Witherspoon, who was a preseason projected first round NBA draft pick, was briefly lost to injury and was then suspended for mocking a coach on the team bus after a difficult loss to SMU.
Add in chemistry issues, no veteran leadership, and suddenly a team with national championship aspirations has become a team struggling to make the NCAA Tournament. The lone bright spot for the team has been the signing of Memphis local and McDonald's All-American Adonis Thomas.
Is it unreasonable for Memphis fans to expect more from Josh Pastner after the hand he has been dealt?
So what the heck happened this season?
All Recruiting Classes Are Not Created Equal
From all accounts, the 2010 class was not a particularly deep class. In other words, Will Barton as the No. 1-rated shooting guard is not the same quality player that 2009's top shooting guard, Xavier Henry, was. The freshmen that Memphis brought in are not of the Derrick Rose/Tyreke Evans ilk, physically overwhelming players with unmatched skills.
Instead, time will be needed for them to physically and mentally mature to completely fulfill their potential.
In recent years there have only been two coaches who have rode a group of mainly freshmen to great NCAA Tournament success. One resides in San Diego and the other in Lexington. Calipari's mediocre results, by his standards, this season are further evidence that the class of 2010 is up to par with last season. Brandon Knight is an excellent player, but he is not the otherworldly talent that John Wall was for the Wildcats.
On the Job Training
Most people will agree a person making $800,000-plus per year to do any job should have no excuses. Yet anyone who has managed people, be it at Burger King or Microsoft, will tell you your first management job is the hardest. Learning to extract the most from of people and have them work as a unit is a skill that truly takes years to refine.
And that is with adults. Just imagine trying to get 18-year-olds that have always been the elite on their team to sit on the bench or simply pass the ball.
These are not excuses for Josh Pastner. He knows losing to East Carolina is not acceptable, nor should it be. He knows he will need to make the NCAA Tournament next year to ensure a fourth season. But it is important to remember his first two years have seen more turnover than a fast food restaurant.
He has made some mistakes along the way: consistently switching his starting lineup, pulling players after a single mistake, potentially not holding them accountable for their actions in the media. But during this brief tenure, all he has done is win over 70 percent of his games while signing four McDonald's All-Americans.
The University of Memphis and its wonderful, but sometimes overbearing, fanbase would be doing itself a big disservice to even suggest running off a coach who is capable of what he has accomplished so far. Patience is not something characteristic to Memphis fans, but in this case it might just be warranted.
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