The wrong statistic can hang around your neck. Josh Pastner knows better than most.
As the head men's basketball coach at Memphis, Pastner has, by any rational standard, been about as successful as anyone could or should have hoped when he was hired five years ago. He has landed almost uniformly excellent recruiting classes. His Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament in three out of four seasons. He has averaged a tidy 27 wins a season. (Twenty-seven wins while playing in the limping Conference USA, but still: 27 wins.) This is what basketball success typically looks like.
But for a couple of years now, a pair of oh-fers have hung around Pastner's neck like anvils. He exorcised the first last season, when he got his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach. The other -- a far more valid, and less circumstantial, bit of evidence: Pastner's 0-13 record against top 25 teams -- mercifully ended in Orlando, Fla., against No. 5 Oklahoma State on Sunday night.
And that's not all: Memphis's 73-68 win in the Old Spice Classic provided was a massive boost, both internally and outwardly, for a team that was embarrassed by the Cowboys in Stillwater on Nov. 19.
You probably remember that Nov. 19 game. Even if you didn't watch it, you surely caught some of the highlights. Marcus Smart scored 39 points in a performance that set the tone for what will be an ongoing player of the year award chase. He shot 11-of-21 from the floor and hit five 3-pointers. He helped put the Cowboys up by 36 points in the second half; they would eventually finish with 101. Smart launched heat-checks and tossed lobs to teammates. He turned the whole thing into a laugher, a pre-coronation for America's favorite college player, and the only thing more noticeable than his greatness was just how disjointed, apathetic and -- let's just come right out and say it -- soft Memphis looked in repose.
For a team with a deep and experienced core of guards, and huge preseason expectations in and outside hoops-obsessed Memphis itself, the Stillwater showing was nothing less than disaster. All of the old complaints came roaring back onto the radio: Pastner was a nice guy, and sure everyone was cheering for him, but he couldn't coach. His teams didn't get it. They gave up. They always underachieve. They can't win the big game. The abbreviation for Amateur Athletic Union, as cutting a coaching epithet as there is, was sprinkled liberally throughout.
It's a little bit difficult to translate how much better Memphis was Sunday, just 12 days after that 101-80 caning. They were better in all of the obvious, technical ways, namely on defense, where they played Oklahoma State's ball-screens and side-to-side movement actions almost immeasurably better than they did in Stillwater. Two weeks ago, Memphis sat back and let Smart do whatever he wanted. On Sunday, they were active on the first touch, denying possession when possible, playing through and over and around screens, and communicating to keep the ball in less damaging places. The number of clean touches Smart got at the top of the key in space Sunday was low, if it wasn't zero.
He was still awfully good. The first half ended on a pair of brilliant Smart drive-and-dishes, when he exploited angles and found open teammates for easy lay-ins. Oklahoma State bounced off a precocious Memphis start and opened up a 10-point lead at halftime, 42-32, and it was hard to picture Memphis keeping up with the unbeaten Cowboys for 20 more minutes.
But the aforementioned Tigers defense held Oklahoma State to just eight points in the first nine minutes of the second half. They were better on offense, too: Better spaced and more cohesive and sharper in every way. Former Missouri transfer Michael Dixon provided that same quick-twitch scoring he perfected for those other Tigers; Joe Jackson grabbed eight rebounds from the guard spot; and, most impressively, Shaq Goodwin was at once a reliable scorer, rebounder, interior passer and energy source for Memphis for all 39 of his minutes Sunday.
Smart was clearly sick in the first half; Memphis may have caught a break there. But so what? On a night they started in a deep perception hole -- just another Memphis team full of talented guys who won't reach their maximum potential, or whatever the nightmare description in the Tigers' otherwise successful basketball community these days -- Memphis came away with a defensively oriented victory against one of the best teams, and probably the best player, in the country.
And Pastner, for his part, got out from under a rather heavy piece of statistical jewelry. Memphis finally punched back.
She and he got it. pic.twitter.com/9oRdGMPei0
— L. Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith) December 2, 2013