College Basketball Nation: Josh Pastner
He can afford the finer things in life. But Memphis’ head coach has been loyal to this old flip phone for years.
Pastner decided to make the change once he reached his flip phone’s max of 999 contacts. But you won’t find the flip phone on eBay.
“Still got [the] flip,” he told ESPN.com. “Just added iPhone. Flip could not add any more contacts.”
Well, it’s a start. And Pastner didn’t stop there.
He also joined Twitter on Tuesday (@5050ballswins). He’s already up to 700-plus followers. But he still has the standard Twitter egg profile pic, and he hasn’t tweeted yet.
“I’m not a Twitter guy,” he said.
This, however, is how it all began for most of us.
Soon, he’ll be taking selfies on Instagram and sharing his favorite recipes on Pinterest.
“I have a long way to go with it all,” he said. “I still am most comfortable with my flip phone.”
Then again, maybe not.
In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on Memphis' young backcourt and the challenges it faces, experimenting with a 30-second shot clock and Washington State's rebuilding under new coach Ernie Kent.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Memphis and Louisville are old rivals, dating back to their days as league partners in the Missouri Valley, Metro and Conference USA.
For one more year, they're playing together in the same conference. And on Thursday night, Memphis showed that the Cardinals aren't simply going to roll through the American Athletic without some company.
The defending national champions were the overwhelming choice to run away with the American title this year before moving on to the ACC. But the No. 24 Tigers beat No. 12 Louisville 73-67 at the Cardinals’ own game and on their own court while proving there's more than one contender in this league.
If you needed any proof that this was an important win for the Tigers, you only had to look at head coach Josh Pastner after the buzzer sounded. Pastner pumped his fist and shot back at some Louisville fans in the KFC Yum! Center crowd who he said had been ripping his team's academic prowess. Pastner said later that's all part of the rivalry, one in which the Cardinals had won four straight dating back to 2005.
Not on this night, even after Louisville went up 64-59 after a Montrezl Harrell dunk with 3 minutes, 50 seconds left. Memphis needed only 37 seconds to tie the game back up, and it would score the final seven points of the game.
Rather than hoist up quick 3-pointers after falling behind, Pastner's team stuck to the game plan, which was to attack the rim and pierce Louisville's soft interior. It was a lesson learned painfully last Saturday against Cincinnati, when the Tigers lost 69-53 -- their worst conference defeat in 15 years -- while settling for jumpers and going 2-for-17 from the 3-point line.
Their final 19 points on Thursday night all came on layups, dunks and free throws.
"That's all we talk about -- going downhill, driving the ball and attacking the rim," said Jackson, who scored 15 points. "That's basically the best part of the game. You don't win by taking jump shots; you win from attacking the basket and finishing and making a free throw."
The Tigers said they developed poise and toughness earlier this season in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., where they fought back from a deficit to beat LSU and then defeated Oklahoma State in a rematch from a loss 12 days earlier. They also took Florida to the wire before falling by two last month in the Jimmy V Classic.
"That shows how this team can face adversity," forward Shaq Goodwin said. "We had a couple of battle-tested games, and we ended up coming out with wins."
If only Louisville could say the same thing. The Cardinals' lofty ranking was once again exposed as fool's gold based on their feasting on inferior competition; they entered the night with the No. 269 schedule by strength in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy. In their only tests this season against ranked opponents -- versus North Carolina and at Kentucky -- they lost each decisively. Since Memphis is the only other American Athletic team currently ranked, Thursday night offered Rick Pitino's team one of its few remaining chances for a quality win.
Yet even with 2013 Final Four MVP Luke Hancock finally getting untracked -- he scored 20 points for the first time since the title-game win over Michigan last April -- the Cardinals suffered the same problems that have plagued them in big games this season.
Other than a solid performance from Harrell, who scored 12 of his 14 points in the second half, the Louisville frontcourt contributed almost nothing. Memphis held a 42-34 advantage in the paint, and its guards made better decisions and more plays down the stretch than the Cardinals' backcourt of Russ Smith and Chris Jones, the latter of whom bricked through a 1-of-9 shooting night against his hometown team.
Most tellingly, the Tigers shot 50.9 percent from the field against a team that has long prided itself on defense under Pitino.
"We got confused a couple of times with the game on the line with what defense we were in," Pitino said. "We didn't get confused one time last year. I don't know what's so difficult about it. We only played two."
Pitino, whose team fell to 2-1 early on in American Athletic play, later added that "this is a much tougher league than all of us anticipated." Memphis, which will host Louisville on March 1, aims to make sure that is true.
"We made a statement tonight," senior guard Geron Johnson said, "but we're going to see those guys who knows how many more times. A guaranteed one more time, and then maybe in the conference tournament. So, it's not over."
These two old rivals still have one heated more conference race between them.
NEW YORK -- Suspensions and injuries, so forth and so on.
The song of this Florida basketball team has been played on the strings of a tiny violin. Not that the Gators were courting sympathy they wouldn't get, anyway.
This season thus far has been about what the Gators didn’t have because of injuries, both real and self-inflicted.
Let’s, however, talk about what Florida has -- perhaps the most complete team since Billy Donovan won back-to-back championships.
Solid big man? Patric Young. Check.
Inside presence? Will Yeguete. Check.
Shooter? Michael Frazier II. Check.
Wing player who can go inside or stretch you outside? Dorian Finney-Smith. Check.
Gifted, impossible-to-stop athlete and potential wild card? Casey Prather. Check.
Great coach? Check.
Potential wunderkind freshman-in-waiting? Chris Walker. Check.
Florida has been to three consecutive Elite Eight games, but in each of those runs, something was missing.
What’s missing now?
“Florida is an elite team," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after his team lost to the Gators 77-75 in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday. “We’ve played two elite teams -- Oklahoma State and Florida."
What makes Florida all the more intriguing, though, is that which you can’t quantify.
The Gators have scars, which Donovan talked about after the Gators' win Tuesday night.
He didn't speak as if his team is hung up on what it hasn’t accomplished, but it knows what it means to have scars.
Nobody has those anymore. Teams don’t cart painful memories around because players don’t last long enough to build up memories together. What you did lately has the shelf life of maybe six months. It’s all about muscle memory, not collective memories.
But the Gators have four seniors, which essentially qualifies them for AARP benefits. These are guys who remember the successes of three consecutive Elite Eight runs but also the flip side of three could-be Final Fours that ended short of the doorway.
“They’ve got a lot of scars on them; they’ve been through a lot," Donovan said. “And maybe it’s because they’ve been scarred enough and wounded enough, they understand that this is a journey."
The journey, however, could be another awfully good one for Donovan.
What he’s done at Florida is nothing short of exceptional. Pastner said after the game that the Hall of Fame should just bypass whatever grace period it has and induct Donovan immediately.
He was being flip, but the reality will be there someday.
This is a man who came into a football school, won two titles and watched that entire roster leave, only to rebuild the team into an elite winner again.
Yet because those successes ended in regional final berths and not the last weekend, Florida gets pushed back into the pack of good teams, not great ones.
That could change this season. Kentucky waltzed into the season as the prohibitive favorite in the SEC, but compare the Wildcats to the Gators right now. Each has been through its own share of hard luck and trials, yet Florida has emerged much more cleanly.
Why? Scars and experience. Losing a player to an injury and waiting for your point guard to serve multiple suspensions is nothing when you’ve been through things together. You get by.
“We’re just focused on right now," Prather said. “That’s all we think about is right now."
That doesn’t mean the Gators will march to the title. If this early season has proven to be anything, it is wildly unpredictable. Asked if he could exhale after coming through a run of four ranked opponents with a 3-1 record, Donovan said with utmost seriousness that he already was worried about Fresno State.
Nothing is in the bag. Florida isn’t so good that it can just kick back and wait for March to roll around.
Joakim Noah isn’t walking through that door, and so forth.
But this Florida team has the blocks upon which a champion can be built, the core fundamentals that we see more often than not (Kentucky and Anthony Davis being the anomaly).
Florida lost two games -- one by six at Wisconsin and one on a buzzerbeater at Connecticut. Neither time did they have their full roster.
And now they do.
"This is our team now; this is our core," Donovan said.
The rest of the world might be breathlessly awaiting the NCAA to allow Walker to make his debut because, after all, what are you these days without a stud freshman? Everyone has one!
But Donovan isn’t waiting on Walker, who enrolled in school this week. He watched him get eaten alive by Young in practice because he's a wide-eyed teenager going up against a man.
Walker is not the savior. And more importantly, he doesn’t need to be.
Florida has plenty just the way it is.
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
Jason King: Steve Alford, UCLA
In some ways, it doesn’t make much sense to say that Steve Alford has something to prove. In his six years at New Mexico, Alford averaged 25.8 victories and won five Mountain West Conference titles. There’s no question the man can coach. Alford, though, will be operating under a whole new set of circumstances at UCLA, where expectations will be unreasonably high. This, after all, is a school that in March fired a coach who had been to three Final Fours and was weeks removed from winning the outright Pac-12 title. That might cut it at some programs, but it didn’t do Ben Howland any good in Westwood, where sub-30-win seasons are considered a failure.
Alford won’t have the grace period that most coaches are extended during their first season. He inherited a team that returns a likely first-round NBA draft pick in Kyle Anderson and a trio of proven forwards in David and Travis Wear and Jordan Adams. Arizona may be the clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12, but UCLA will be expected to at least make the race interesting. If the Bruins don’t, Alford will endure a boatload of criticism, especially considering the lukewarm reception to his hiring by fans and media. Alford’s lack of NCAA tournament success -- and his mediocre performance on the recruiting trail thus far -- has prompted some concerns about his ability to return UCLA to its days of dominance. And his often prickly personality may make it tough to win over fans. As a player at Indiana, Alford grew used to being in the spotlight. But never during his coaching career has he encountered what lies ahead during his first season at UCLA.
Myron Medcalf: John Calipari, Kentucky
It’s odd for a man with a national championship and Final Four appearances in two of the past three seasons to have something to prove. But that’s the position John Calipari is in after assembling the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history. Sure, there’s no guarantee this class will live up to the hype. But no group -- ever -- has warranted this much hoopla and excitement. He has six McDonald’s All Americans, and that’s just the freshmen. In all, Calipari boasts eight players who might be first-round picks in next summer’s NBA draft.
So what could go wrong? Well, last season, another talented young crew in Lexington lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Was that a fluke? There’s immense pressure on Calipari and this Kentucky squad to prove that it was. He’s always been a premier recruiter, but recruiting alone, as we learned last year, is not the only quality that breeds success within the coaching ranks. Developing talent is critical. Calipari did that when he won a national title in 2012 with a squad that was led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The same result will be anticipated by Big Blue Nation in 2013-14. Yet the stench of last season’s tumult remains. The only relief will be a rally that ends in Texas with a Final Four appearance. Many will expect -- demand -- a national title. That’s what happens when a coach brings so many stars together. But can Calipari lead an inexperienced yet advanced group of young players to the championship again? Anything short of that could be considered a disappointment.
Dana O'Neil: Josh Pastner, Memphis
The news that Michael Dixon would be eligible immediately at Memphis turned the Tigers’ already terrific backcourt into arguably one of the best in the nation. It also upped the ante for the team overall, which means even higher expectations for Josh Pastner. The fifth-year coach has some questions on the inside, namely can Shaq Goodwin continue to make strides to help replace Adonis Thomas. But he’s got awfully good answers on the perimeter. Dixon, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are all different but all very good and, more important, all seniors. If Pastner can steal a page from Jay Wright’s four-guard handbook, he’s got the makings of a pretty good team.
Pastner has done a more-than-admirable job since taking over for Calipari. In three of his four years, the Tigers have made the NCAA tournament and last season won their first NCAA game in his tenure, beating Saint Mary’s before losing to Michigan State to finish 31-5. The trouble is, before Pastner arrived, winning an NCAA tournament game was a foregone conclusion. Calipari’s last four teams went Elite Eight, Elite Eight, national title game, Sweet 16. It’s an absurdly high bar. It’s frankly unfair to measure a team by its NCAA success only. Matchups and injuries can alter so many fates, but it is definitely Pastner’s reality. The folks of Memphis love their coach and love their Tigers, but they want to see the tourney's second weekend again.
2. Providence College coach Ed Cooley said he called as many schools as possible and could not schedule a home-and-home game out of the region. Providence has consistently had issues trying to get games, regardless of who their head coach is. There have been a few series with schools like Alabama and Texas, due to the connection of former coach Rick Barnes. PC also had one with Wichita State. That's why Cooley had to think out of the box with the new 18-game, round-robin Big East schedule. The Friars play Boston College at home, go to UMass (because Cooley said he was convinced the Minutemen would be a high RPI game), play Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and have the annual series with Rhode Island (this time in Kingston). They will also play in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, against Vanderbilt and with La Salle as a possibility in the second round (Explorers play Morgan State). Maryland is on the other side of the bracket (with Northern Iowa as another player on that side). The Friars reached the NIT quarterfinals before losing to Baylor. Kris Dunn and Bryce Cotton give the Friars a shot to get back to the postseason and Cooley did a solid job of building a legitimate schedule to make the Friars potentially matter in March.
3. Memphis coach Josh Pastner knew when he took over for John Calipari he had to manage his staff as effectively as he did the team. He hired veteran head coach Willis Wilson. He later added former teammate Luke Walton during the lockout and also hired Damon Stoudamire. Stoudamire left and Pastner went back to his alma mater and hired former teammate Jason Gardner, who had been an assistant at Loyola. Gardner was on the 2001 national runnerup Wildcats and was one of the most competent four-year point guards in the last 14 years. He should immediately help the youthful backcourt for the Tigers. He's a winner and was a tough, rugged point guard. Meanwhile, Missouri coach Frank Haith added former Drake coach Mark Phelps on his staff. That gives Haith another former head coach on his veteran staff to go along with former DePaul and Virginia coach Dave Leitao.
Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989
- Penny Hardaway (1993)
- Derrick Rose (2008)
- Tyreke Evans (2009)
- Lorenzen Wright (1996)
- Elliot Perry (1991)
The rest: Elliot Williams, Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams, Antonio Burks, Dajuan Wagner, Cedric Henderson, David Vaughn
Why they're ranked where they are: Star power. Guard power. Stard power? Whatever weird phrase you'd like to try to coin to describe it -- and hopefully you can do better than "stard power," yeesh -- Memphis has it, plain and simple. No other team ranked below them in this top 20 can say the same.
Rose was the MVP of the National Basketball Association at the ripe old age of 22, and you surely don't need me to tell you why his inclusion dramatically boosts Memphis' pro pedigree. Rose suffered a major setback with his anterior cruciate ligament tear in the 2012 playoffs, and his standing among Bulls fans was hurt by his inability (or unwillingness, or any of the other motives the city of Chicago ascribed to a dude taking the long view of his sure-to-be-brilliant career, as though this was a bad thing) to come back in time to face the Miami Heat in the 2013 stretch run. But Rose is one of the game's brightest young stars and, barring injury, will be an MVP-level player at the point guard spot for the next decade.
The key phrase, of course, is "barring injury." Just ask the top player on the list.
Despite the injuries -- chief among them a 1997 knee injury -- that eventually derailed what would have been a surefire Hall of Fame career, Hardaway went on to play 14 seasons in the league. Even if he hadn't, his early brilliance would have been enough. I know what I saw.
The rest of this list, as you might expect, is just sort of blah. Evans gets the nod at No. 3 because he has been a very productive player in his first four seasons, even if he's done so for one of the NBA's worst franchises (Sacramento) and earned a huge heaping of scorn for his seeming unwillingness to get teammates involved. Wright is a name you might best recall thanks to his mysterious 2010 disappearance and death, but, before that, the beloved Tiger had a nice 13-season NBA career. Perry did pile together 10 years in the league, but is listed fifth mostly because of that grotesque list of the rest, almost none of which has made any impact in the NBA. (To be fair, one-time uber-prospect Dejuan Wagner would've almost certainly cracked this top 5 had he not been beset by a series of scary medical ailments.)
Why they could be ranked higher: Because Hardaway was the aforementioned truth? Because Rose is currently the truth? Because you believe Evans is misunderstood or in a bad situation and could be a brilliant player in a system that knew how to use him (or in any system at all, which isn't possible when you fire coaches as frequently as the Kings)? Any of these arguments is permissible, but none is particularly convincing. On the other other hand
Why they could be ranked lower: As much as it pains me to say this, we have no idea if Rose is ever going to be Rose again. With the possible exception of Russell Westbrook, no player in the NBA -- certainly no star -- relies as much on sheer athletic genius as Rose. He cuts, he bumps, he flies, he finishes, and when he's hitting jumpers, he's basically unguardable. What if all those cuts are a little less crisp? What if he can't do the same things he used to do physically? What does that mean for his career?
We could also argue that Hardaway, for as good as he was, was essentially a six-year player -- from 1993 to 1999 there were few guards in the game not named Michael Jordan as good as Penny. But after Hardaway's body betrayed him, he was a shell of his former self, doomed to wander the NBA wilderness until limping home with a 3.8-points-per-game season in his final year with the Heat. Don't get it twisted: I love me some Penny Hardaway. But he wasn't exactly a pillar of longevity.
Likewise, Evans is arguably trending downward. As a rookie, he averaged 20.1 points per game; he's declined in each subsequent season, from 17.8 to 16.5 to 15.2. These are not the best numbers by which to judge a young player's career, and Evans did shoot his highest field goal percentage (albeit on fewer attempts) in 2012-13. But after four seasons, Evans still lacks a consistent outside jumper, doesn't find teammates as often as he should and has too many character-related questions to project much added upside.
What’s ahead? Barton's career will be interesting to watch. A two-year player under Josh Pastner at Memphis, Barton was criminally underrated (much like the Tigers) in 2011-2012, his final season at the school, in which he finished with a 115.7 offensive rating on 25.6 percent usage. Despite putting up these All-America-level efficiency numbers, the 6-foot-6 guard was passed over until the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the second round. Barton, who had an OK rookie season, has to improve his perimeter skills if he wants to stick as a conventional 3 in the league, but there's no reason he can't be a Kawhi Leonard type for the right team one day.
In the meantime, Pastner's program continues to recruit as well as any program in the country. Adonis Thomas killed his draft stock with an awful sophomore season, but he has the size and talent to stick in the league. D.J. Stephens is a freak of nature. Down the line, keep an eye on rising sophomore Shaq Goodwin and top freshman small forward Nick King.
Final thoughts: For a program that spent the entire aughts coached by John Calipari, Memphis suffers from a distinct lack of depth when it comes to its pro pedigree since 1989. (Where have you gone, Dajuan Wagner? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.) But at the top end, the players the Tigers have produced are undeniably stellar. Hardaway was a 6-foot-7 to whom God gifted the keys to Magic Johnson's tall-triple-double-machine legacy; only the whims of fate could slow him down. Rose, meanwhile, is still at the dawn of his career and already has one MVP -- in a LeBron James-owned league, and during a season in which Dwight Howard was insanely good -- under his belt. Even with the ACL tear, the long-term prognosis is pointing toward the Hall of Fame. Evans is divisive even within his own locker room, and his stock has taken a drastic hit, but there's no escaping the fact that he was the first player since James, Jordan and Oscar Robertson to average 20, 5 and 5 in his rookie season. That's still in there, somewhere.
Where Memphis' shot at the top 10 in this list falls apart is in the huge drop between that top three and the rest of its products since 1989. Look for Pastner to change that in the coming years. Until then, No. 15 feels right.
2. The U.S. World University Games team will have its hands full with Canada during the competition, set for July 6-17 in Kazan, Russia. The Canadian roster, released Tuesday, isn't as loaded but boasts plenty of major-college talent. Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, the ACC freshman of the year, is joined by headline players Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Dwight Powell (Stanford), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Laurent Rivard (Harvard) and Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State). Each of these Canadians will have a significant role on his respective team, with all of them starting the season in position to make a run at an NCAA bid. Ejim may be the most intriguing of the lot, with a real shot to be even more of a breakout player in the Big 12. Pangos will have more scoring next season. Powell led the Cardinal last season. Rivard will be a fixture on a stacked Crimson. Wiltjer has to adjust his role with the newcomers at Kentucky but can still be a matchup problem. Heslip must be more consistent. Bachynski has to absorb some of Carrick Felix's numbers after his departure. And Hanlan will be responsible for leading the Eagles higher in the ACC.
3. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has taken plenty of transfers his first few years in Ames. He has had success stories mixed in with quality newcomers. I'll be very interested to see if he can maximize the talent of DeAndre Kane, who was a disappointment for Marshall after starting last season with such promise. Kane was essentially asked to leave Marshall by coach Tom Herrion; they weren't going to mesh for one more season. Now Kane has to be in step with Hoiberg if his final year in college is going to be productive. Kane originally was looking to go to Pitt, but that didn't work out, either. He pursued Iowa State and the Cyclones were receptive. It's in everyone's best interest that this works for next season so the Cyclones can be relevant come March for a third consecutive season.
It's official, if it wasn't already: NCAA tournament wins are the most valuable commodity in college basketball.
How do I know? Back in November, Memphis coach Josh Pastner was feeling some serious heat. After another disappointing early-season nonconference stretch, the Tigers' intense fan base grew restless. Respected local columnists were echoing laments screamed loudly at television sets throughout the Bluff City, openly wondering if Pastner could actually coach. Memphis seemed thankful for Pastner's prodigious recruiting ability and straight-laced work ethic, but also smarted from a series of first-round tournament exits.
A few months later, in late March, Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen signed Pastner to a contract extension, vowing Pastner would "remain our basketball coach for a long time."
The immense silliness of this dynamic isn't limited to Pastner or Memphis, but as we've written before, his situation was a particularly poignant example. In 2011, the Tigers lost 77-75 to a Derrick Williams-led Arizona team (the same one that pummeled No. 1 Duke and Kyrie Irving en route to the Elite Eight). In 2012, they lost to Rick Majerus' diabolical Saint Louis defense. The 2013 Tigers (31-5) may be remembered as the team that got a sizable monkey off Pastner's back, but they finished No. 40 in KenPom.com's adjusted efficiency rankings. The 2012 team -- a drastically underseeded No. 8 that just so happened to play against a drastically underseeded No. 9 coached by one of the great tactical masters in college hoops history -- finished eighth in those same efficiency rankings.
That Pastner was under fire following the former and received a contract extension after the latter should tell you everything you need to know about the psychological stranglehold tourney wins maintain over our collective college hoops consciousness. It must be suffocating.
Perhaps, then, 2013-14 could be a breath of fresh air. Just as Pastner has been freed from the tyranny of small sample sizes, the program he leads is now free of Conference USA, a league it outgrew years before John Calipari jumped to Kentucky. (Speaking of small sample sizes, C-USA's mediocrity in recent years made every Memphis game in November and December utterly crucial and devoid of margin for error. Hence last winter's freakout.) The American Athletic Conference isn't the vintage Big East, but it is a much better league. It will offer more opportunities on a near-nightly basis than C-USA; it will allow Memphis fans to breathe much easier about their March tournament seed even if the Tigers sputter this fall.
Which brings us, finally, to the point of all this: For Memphis to shine in its first post-C-USA season, Joe Jackson has to have the best season of his career.
This may seem obvious. Of course the team's senior point guard and most-used player a year ago has to have a good season. And isn't that the expectation anyway? Shouldn't we pencil that in, and find a more pivotal, younger player?
It's not as obvious as you think. For one, Jackson, a proud hometown kid, has had a mercurial career. Jackson has veered from wildly promising to disappointing to the key cog in a backcourt that carried the Tigers through some truly disappointing frontcourt performances last season (most notably those of Tarik Black and Adonis Thomas, both of whom departed the program this season). The question is whether or not Jackson can take the progress of 2012-13 -- when he shot 44.7 percent from 3 and 54.4 percent from 2, and posted a 112.0 offensive rating -- and combine it with leadership, consistency and fewer turnovers.
That last bit might be the most important. Last season, Memphis' offense scored 1.06 points per trip. That's not bad, but it's not great, and it had a lot to do with the Tigers' 20.8 percent turnover rate. Jackson himself posted a typically high assist rate (27.8 percent), but also turned the ball over on 23.0 percent of his possessions. That was better than his freshman season (29.1 percent), but was a minor regression from 2011-12 (21.6), when his usage rate was three percentage points higher.
If the Tigers shoot the ball as well as they have in recent seasons, fewer turnovers will improve their efficiency almost overnight. Jackson has yet to prove he can reign in his cough-up tendencies and still be his slashing, daring self. He has to find a way to reconcile these competing impulses this season.
He also has to be a leader. Memphis has always felt young in Pastner's tenure. In 2011 and 2012, this was because most of his top contributors, recruited in Jackson's class, were freshmen and sophomores. In 2013-14, in Jackson and shooting guard Chris Crawford, Pastner will finally have genuine four-year starters with full careers full of experience, but his team will once more be very young. In addition to Thomas and Black, Memphis waved farewell to seniors Ferrakohn Hall, Stan Simpson, Charles Holt and D.J. Stephens, as well as junior transfer Antonio Barton. As is tradition, Pastner will bring in a talented class of freshmen, including four ESPN Top 100 prospects (power forward Austin Nichols, small forward Kuran Iverson, small forward Nick King, and point guard Rashawn Powell).
There are some returners to note: Geron Johnson is back, as is sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin, who is probably the most talented player on the roster. Even so, this is still a team that lost four guys to graduation, two to transfer and one to the NBA draft. It is also a team entering a new conference replete with new, more daunting opponents. There are few strings of words more synonymous with "leadership" than "four-year starting point guard." Jackson has to be that guy.
If Jackson were to merely repeat his solid 2012-13 -- if he really has capped out his potential, and really can't help the turnovers -- then Memphis can still be a good team. But if Jackson can put together a performance his hometown will remember him by, this young group might be capable of much more than one overanalyzed NCAA tournament win.
2. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said he gave Tarik Black a Tuesday deadline to decide if he wanted to stay with the Tigers. He did not, even though he was graduating. "I want guys to be here with enthusiasm to be here,'' said Pastner. Black will transfer and try to play immediately next season. The Tigers also lost Adonis Thomas, who is declaring for the NBA draft. But the American-bound Tigers have one of the top recruiting classes in the country. "(Black) is a good guy and I wish him the very best. He graduated," Pastner said. "But we'll be fine. We're still really talented. We've got the main corps and we've got the No. 2 recruiting class.''
3. I had new Minnesota coach Richard Pitino on "Katz Korner" on Tuesday and I was struck by his confidence. Pitino is just like his father in that regard. Pitino had no hesitation in taking the Minnesota job once offered. Now, one would assume that no one coaching at Florida International would turn that down. But Pitino definitely has the confidence that he will win. Pitino's hire was overshadowed by the events of last week; now he's got to get into the grind of the new job. He was on the Georgia Dome floor Monday night after the NCAA title game, spent the post-game hours with his dad -- Rick, head coach of the champion Louisville Cardinals -- and said they didn't get to bed until 5 a.m. before Richard was up at 7 a.m. Richard Pitino now must spend his time wisely, re-recruiting the local players and trying to make inroads with a stellar underclassman crew in the state of Minnesota.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Some thoughts after third-seeded Michigan State knocked off No. 6 seed Memphis 70-48 in a round of 32 game in the Palace of Auburn Hills.
Overview: This was a complete antithesis of style from the first game of the day in which Michigan run-and-gunned its way to the Sweet 16. Michigan State forced Memphis into a more plodding, sloppy, ugly game.
Exactly how the Spartans prefer to play.
If the Spartans can force an opponent to try to be tougher than them, Michigan State will usually win. That is exactly what happened to Memphis, which couldn’t get into its preferred style of athletic, running play.
Michigan State could play that way, but the Spartans were just fine controlling the pace and using their size to send themselves to the Sweet 16 again.
It didn’t come without some issues, as Michigan State had point guard Keith Appling leave the game due to an injury in the second half, but the Spartans were able to handle the game the rest of the way with a combination of Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice handling the ball.
Turning point: Valentine missed a 3-pointer in the corner, but Memphis missed the rebound, allowing the Spartans’ Adreian Payne to slip into the lane for a dunk. That forced Memphis coach Josh Pastner to call a timeout with the Spartans up 43-32. The margin would stay from 10 to 12 points for most of the rest of the game.
Key player: Payne can do it all and is a prototypical power forward in the NBA. In college, this means there's potential for dominance, which Memphis learned Saturday. The 6-foot-10 Dayton, Ohio, native showed off his freakish athleticism as a two-way player, blocking five shots and grabbing a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Key stat: 29.7 percent from the field. Memphis couldn’t get out and run like it normally does, forcing the Tigers to take more difficult, contested outside shots. It did not go well, as Memphis was 5-of-23 from behind the 3-point line and struggled to take advantage of any mistakes Michigan State made.
Next: Michigan State moves to the Sweet 16 -- its fifth in the past six seasons -- to face either No. 2 seed Duke or seventh-seeded Creighton in Indianapolis on Friday.
AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Josh Pastner walked out of the tiny Memphis locker room late Thursday afternoon, saw the crowd of media waiting and tried to gather them in a huddle.
The 35-year-old appears forever happy, working through media lines and all over the Palace of Auburn Hills the past two days. Since he took over at Memphis for John Calipari four years ago, he had won 105 games and done almost everything he needed to so Memphis would remain at its previous level.
Pastner tried to not make a big deal of his Tigers holding on to beat Saint Mary’s 54-52, yet his team understood the implications. The players had heard all about the one thing Pastner hadn’t done.
“It’s a major monkey off his back in the grand scheme of things, but right now he’s thinking to the next game,” senior forward Ferrakohn Hall said. “Definitely a big deal, going to the tournament three years in a row and not being able to get over the hump and now you can; it’s a great achievement.”
It is an achievement the Memphis players took personally. They knew they were still a good team -- 31 wins this season and counting after winning 25-plus games the prior two seasons -- but in past years, they couldn’t replicate their regular-season success.
And it almost happened again, as Memphis had a 15-point lead in the first half dwindle to two with 1.9 seconds left. Point guard Joe Jackson had lost the ball, giving Saint Mary’s one final chance to send Memphis home for the third straight year without a win.
Saint Mary’s guard Matthew Dellavedova took the ball on the wing and attempted a 3-pointer.
"It came off, and once it left, I knew it was long," Pastner said. "So it was good. It was a good win.
"... I was totally at peace. I really was. You might not believe me, but I was. I really was at peace.”
As it sailed over, Pastner and his players stayed calm. They had waited three seasons for this moment, to say they won an NCAA tournament game.
The players talked about it in huddles during Thursday’s game. They constantly reminded each other of the importance of getting past this, of being able to finally reach the second game in the NCAA tournament.
"We've been here with him, so we say, 'We. It’s a we thing,'" Hall said. "The whole staff and team, everyone in our locker room -- it’s the thing we definitely have talked about.
"It's a group thing. It’s pretty much understood. Even in the huddle, we'd say, 'Let’s get past this. Let's get over this hump.'"
Pastner’s players understood. As they left the locker room, just after Pastner came out of it himself, D.J. Stephens yelled out, "Congrats, Coach." And Pastner smiled.
Then Stephens gave Pastner what he might have wanted to hear the most: “We ain’t done yet.”
Sure you do. The Tigers entered the 2012-13 season customarily loaded with the Memphis-area talent coach Josh Pastner has become renowned for recruiting. Memphis was ranked No. 17 in the preseason Associated Press poll, and back then you could argue that ranking was conservative. By all accounts, hyper-talented forward Adonis Thomas had a fabulous offseason, previously unpredictable guard Joe Jackson had grown up, highly touted freshman forward Shaq Goodwin promised to lend imposing post presence alongside mountain/man Tarik Black, and the rest of the rotation (Chris Crawford, Antonio Barton, D.J. Stephens, Geron Johnson) looked just the type to fill in the role-player gaps around those stars. Few teams had a better or more well-rounded collection of talent. The immediate future was bright.
It didn't take long for the excitement to fade. Memphis lost to VCU by 13 in the first round of the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis, followed by a loss to Minnesota in which the Gophers'
The Tigers looked better in December against Louisville, but they collapsed down the stretch in that one, too, and all of a sudden Memphis was entering a down C-USA with wins over Tennessee, Ohio and Northern Iowa as its most impressive. And so we all collectively decided to forget about Memphis. Rightfully so.
Guess what: It's now Feb. 14 (Happy Valentine's Day!), and as my colleague Jason King pointed out Wednesday night, that Dec. 15 loss to Louisville was the last the Tigers suffered. They've now won 15 games in a row, climbed back into the AP Top 25 and are coming off their most impressive wins of that stretch; Saturday's 89-76 win at Southern Miss and Wednesday's 22-point rout of UCF.
The only problem? Neither of those teams is very good. And the rest of the C-USA is downright bad.
To wit: Of Memphis' 15 wins in the past two months, only two teams -- Tennessee and Southern Miss -- rank inside the top 100 in KenPom.com's efficiency ratings. Indeed, Southern Miss is the highest-ranked team the Tigers have topped all season. Most of the outfits Memphis has beat lately have been downright bad, because pretty much all of the C-USA, save for the Golden Eagles, is downright bad.
This makes understanding Memphis' actual improvement a big-time challenge. How do you quantify all those wins over all those bad teams? What, exactly, do they say about Memphis?
This is the classic dominant mid-major scenario, one experienced in recent seasons by any number of singularly impressive teams -- Utah State, Belmont, Bucknell, Butler, Middle Tennessee State, Louisiana Tech, Oral Roberts, even (at times) Gonzaga and Saint Mary's. The nonconference wins aren't there, but the record looks pretty, and can you really blame a team for sopping up whatever is put on its plate? The infamous eye test can certainly help -- if you watch Memphis play, you can see the improvement -- but when a good team is beating up on a bad league, there's always the possibility of deception.
This, of course, is where efficiency statistics come in. John Gasaway's Tuesday Truths found Memphis (prior to the UCF win) outscoring opponents by .20 points per trip. That's a tidy mark, but only slightly better than what Michigan and Indiana are doing to a much, much, much better Big Ten. (Gonzaga, for comparison's sake, outscores WCC teams by .28 ppp). Pomeroy's efficiency rankings -- which adjust for strength of competition -- have the Tigers in the mid-30s, a major leap from the low-50s they slogged in just a few weeks ago. The BPI is even more flattering, slotting Memphis at No. 28. And the RPI -- No. 35 -- ultimately feels just about right.
Those numbers only go so far, of course. Memphis does a lot of things well; it blocks a ton of shots and grabs a ton of defensive rebounds, and that combination has been enough to stifle Conference USA. But it is still Conference USA. Memphis has one nonconference opportunity left, a road game at Xavier, and that should be fascinating. But other than that, it may take until the NCAA tournament to really understand where this team stands.
In the end, that was probably always going to be the case anyway. That's the single biggest knock on Pastner -- that he hasn't won a game in the NCAA tournament. It's a bit silly. After all, Pastner nearly toppled the Derrick Williams-led Arizona Wildcats (which proceeded to pound Kyrie Irving and Duke in the 2011 Sweet 16), and last March he ran up against a brutally underseeded and magnificently coached Saint Louis team in the first round. But even with those caveats, Memphis fans want to see Pastner succeed in the tournament. Until he does, they won't be happy -- and we won't know exactly what to make of this Memphis team, either.
(Update: An original version of the post said Adonis Thomas was 6-foot-8; he is listed at 6-foot-7. Also, Memphis fans want me to note that Geron Johnson was suspended the first three games of the season and didn't play against VCU. These are the occasional perils of blogging at 4 a.m. Carry on.)