The spotlight is never off in Memphis
Grizz are talk of the town, but pressure on Josh Pastner's Tigers never goes away
Whenever someone asks him to describe the interest and scrutiny that hovers over his basketball program, Josh Pastner points to the sports section of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
"We're on Page 1C 365 days a year," the Tigers' coach said. "Even in May and June, it's never 9C. We're always on 1C, always on that front page. The intensity and passion people have about basketball here … there's no place like it.
"They bleed basketball here."
Especially these days.
Pastner's teams always have talent, but never during his four-year career has a Tigers squad entered a season surrounded by so much optimism and buzz.
Memphis returns three of its top four scorers (Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson) from a 31-win team. And Pastner -- long regarded as one of the country's top recruiters -- has snared the best haul of his career, an elite class that ranks third in the nation (behind Kentucky and Kansas), according to ESPN.com.
"We've got a good nucleus," Pastner said. "We've got upperclassmen in some areas, and we've got new guys coming in that will contribute. It's a good blend, a good mix."
Throw in the fact that Memphis will be playing its first season in the new American Athletic Conference, and its easy to see why the 2013-14 campaign will be the most anticipated Tigers season since the days of John Calipari.
That this program is even in this position is a credit to Pastner, who was just 31 when he was tabbed to replace Calipari following his departure to Kentucky in 2009. Hiring someone so young with zero head-coaching experience was a risky move by then-athletic director R.C. Johnson.
And while Memphis may not have blossomed into an NCAA title contender (yet) under Pastner, he has averaged 26.5 wins in his four seasons while learning on the go. That he's done it in the glare of one of the nation's brightest spotlights makes the feat even more impressive.
Memphis' victory over Saint Mary's in March marked the first NCAA tournament win for Pastner, whose squad was one of two teams (along with Gonzaga) that entered the event with 30 or more wins. Even though the Tigers were trounced in the next round by Michigan State, the SMC victory was much-needed for Pastner, who had drawn criticism for not performing well in the postseason. Pastner said he was relieved to have finally gotten over the round-of-64 hump.
"To win that tournament game was a big thing," he said. "Do you know how hard it is to even get into the NCAA tournament? It's not a birthright. It is hard. You don't take it for granted. You don't take winning the regular-season conference title for granted, either. I'm so grateful for each win. I don't take one win for granted ever. Ever."
Pastner is confident the upcoming season can be his best. Point guard Joe Jackson, who earned Conference USA MVP honors after averaging 13.6 points and 4.8 assists, is back along with shooting guard Chris Crawford, whom some media outlets tabbed as the national sixth man of the year last season.
Also returning is guard/small forward Geron Johnson, a defensive standout and energy guy who helped set the tone for his teammates last season. Pastner is also hoping forward Shaq Goodwin will have a breakout season after averaging 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds as a freshman.
Memphis is also adding George Washington transfer David Pellom, a forward who averaged 10.4 points and 6.1 rebounds in 2011-12.
The biggest key, though, will be how quickly freshmen such as Austin Nichols, Kuran Iverson and Nick King adapt to the rigors of the college game both on and off the court.
"The good thing is that [the freshmen] are all able to score," Pastner said. "But remember, they're freshmen. There are going to be some learning curves. There are going to be some ups and downs. But they're talented players."
As excited as he is about next season, Pastner has spent much of the last month dealing with attrition on both his team and his staff. Sophomore forward Adonis Thomas, the team's second-leading scorer, decided to pursue his NBA dreams, while Tarik Black announced his plans to transfer to another school for his senior season. Guard Antonio Barton followed suit a few weeks later.
Black is considering Duke, Kansas, Oregon and Georgetown. Tennessee is a possible destination for Barton. Both players have received their undergraduate degree from Memphis, which means they'll be eligible immediately at their new school.
"They've graduated and got their degrees," Pastner said. "They have every right to explore other options. They did their job, and we did our job. They graduated. That's a big thing. You graduate, you have options. I'm OK with that."
Memphis also lost two assistants. Damon Stoudamire left to work under Sean Miller at Arizona, his alma mater. Jimmy Williams resigned to pursue opportunities in the NBA. Pastner hired Robert Kirby -- a longtime Mississippi State assistant who also worked at Georgetown and LSU (last season) -- to fill one of the vacancies. But he still needs to fill the other.
"I expect us to have a high turnover rate," Pastner said. "I've got no problem with that, because it means we're hiring good people. When you hire high-level guys, there are going to be other opportunities. I've lost guys to head-coaching jobs. I've lost guys to other opportunities in the profession. That's a healthy thing. That's positive."
So, too, Pastner said, is the success of the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, who have advanced to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. It's hardly uncommon for standouts such as Zach Randolph, Tony Allen or Mike Conley to show up at the Tigers' training facilities during the offseason for a workout or to join in on a pickup game.
"Their success has united the city," Pastner said.
But a playoff run by the city's professional basketball team hasn't caused people to forget about the college version and all that lies ahead. Pastner fully expects to pick up tomorrow's paper and see something about his team on the front page of the sports section, just like always.
"Hey, I'm not complaining," Pastner said. "I'm sure 99.9 percent of coaches would give their right arm to have that kind of passion and enthusiasm about the program. We've got a lot to look forward to."
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