Pastner proving to be worthy successor to Calipari at Memphis
Josh Pastner has Tigers at 14-5 and he's assembling a No. 1 recruiting class
I'm calling it right now: Northwestern is going to the NCAA tournament
My AP ballot: Texas plummets from No. 1 spot; Oklahoma St. enters the mix
Last Thursday afternoon, some 400 miles from where John Calipari was getting ready to lead his jubilant Kentucky Wildcats to the No. 1 ranking, his former assistant back in Memphis, Josh Pastner, was huddling up Calipari's former players in an effort to lift the sorrow from their souls. Pastner's guys were disconsolate because the night before they had lost at home to UTEP, snapping their Conference USA winning streak at 64 games -- one tantalizing win shy of setting a new NCAA record.
The loss left the seniors in tears after the game, and when Pastner noticed them moping around in practice the next day, he brought them in for a pep talk.
"For crying out loud, there's no reason to be so depressed," said Pastner, who unlike Calipari and just about every other coach in America does not use profanity. "We just lost a game. Do I need to take you over to St. Jude's [Hospital]? No doctor called to say you're sick or that you're dying. We lost a game, that's all. Let's start another streak."
Such encouragement is to be expected from a boyish, teetotaling, 32-year-old Tony Robbins wannabe who concludes the message on his cell phone by saying, "Remember, positive belief is the foundation for all excellence." But it also speaks to the larger challenge Pastner faces in managing expectations. The life of the party is gone and he took all the pretty girls with him, but Pastner still must find ways to keep the music playing.
"When I took over, I went all over the city and told people, you can't judge me on what Coach Cal did the last four years," Pastner says. "It's not reality."
Making that challenge even greater was the way Memphis's top-ranked recruiting class disintegrated after Calipari left last spring. DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodson, who had both committed to Memphis, followed Calipari to Kentucky, as did John Wall, who was on the verge of coming to Memphis. Xavier Henry had signed a letter of intent to play at Memphis, but when Calipari left, Memphis released Henry from his letter. Now he's at Kansas.
Several other players whom Pastner was counting on also became unavailable during the offseason. One went to the NBDL, another got injured and remained in his native France, and a transfer who was about to become eligible tore an ACL on the first day of practice. That has left Pastner with a group that has little height and less depth. In each of Memphis's five losses, the Tigers have been severely outrebounded. They are a good defensive team (ranked 13th in the nation in steals) and are making a lot more three-pointers than they have in the past, but what has pleased Pastner most is their effort. Memphis is unranked, but the Tigers still are 14-5 and have an excellent chance to make the NCAA tournament. "I'm so proud of our young men," Pastner says. "The guys who are here, they didn't sign up to play for Josh Pastner, they signed to play for John Calipari. But they've given everything they have."
The good news is there are a lot of very good players who want to play for Josh Pastner. In just his first year on the job, Pastner has landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, a seven-man tour de force that features three players from Memphis (most notably point guard Joe Jackson) and two other studs (wings Jelan Kendrick and Will Barton) who are ranked in the top 11 nationally by Rivals.com. That class brings a lot of badly-needed bodies, but more than anything it gives Pastner instant credibility.
Not surprisingly, he professes nothing but happiness for the success both his former boss and former recruits are enjoying in Lexington. "The way I look at it is, without Coach Calipari, I would never have been brought to Memphis and certainly would have never been the head coach at Memphis," Pastner says. "I hope that's us someday, I really do. But I know it's not going to happen overnight."
In the meantime, the Tigers demonstrated the power of positive belief by recovering from their dispiriting loss to pummel Houston at home on Saturday, 92-77. Let the record show the new streak stands at one.
Other Hoop Thoughts
You see that guy Chandler Parsons sitting over there? The kid from Florida who just hit his second game-winner of the season against South Carolina, the first coming on a 75-footer against N.C. State? Yeah, I'll have what he's having.
Sherron Collins belongs in any discussion for national Player of the Year, but Kansas is better off with someone else being its leading scorer. The Jayhawks can't keep relying on Collins' scoring to bail them out of tough spots. Xavier Henry in particular needs to get going offensively. In four Big 12 games, Henry is averaging just 9.0 points on 26.2 percent shooting.
That was a big win for Duke at Clemson, but it looks like Mike Krzyzewski is giving up on his freshmen a little early this season. Mason Plumlee, who played his best game of the season in the win over Wake Forest two weeks ago (11 points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes), played just eight minutes and did not score against the Tigers. Andre Dawkins' minutes have fallen off dramatically in ACC play -- he did not even step on the court at Clemson. That might help the Blue Devils get through some tough conference road games, but it could hinder their preparation for March, when they'll need the newbies to contribute.
Freshman point guard Maalik Wayns has really been giving Villanova a nice spark off the bench lately. Just one more reason to believe this is a better Wildcats team than the one that made the Final Four last year.
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