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Rounding Up the Dark Horses
Alexander Wolff
March 16, 1998
With the help of a precocious coach-in-training at Arizona, we check out the long shots and speculate on which of them might gallop to the Alamodome
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March 16, 1998

Rounding Up The Dark Horses

With the help of a precocious coach-in-training at Arizona, we check out the long shots and speculate on which of them might gallop to the Alamodome

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Perhaps the least suspenseful moment in last Sunday's NCAA selection show was the unveiling of the tournament's top four seeds. We've known who they would be since November. History nonetheless tells us that they won't compose the Final Four, and hence our task: finding, scaring up or otherwise raising an Arizona—some improbable team that, like last season's Wildcats, will make a run deep into the tournament, if not win it.

To do so, we could have scrolled through the power ratings, rankings and other cybereffluvia clogging the Internet, or trotted out the usual follically impaired TV pundits whose verbiage is fouling the airwaves. But we came up with a better idea. We found an obscure flesh-and-blood college basketball polymath who has barely started shaving, let alone lost any hair. He knows cold both the Arizona team of a year ago (for he was on it) and all that has transpired in the game this season (for he has seen it).

Meet Arizona sophomore Josh Pastner, a 5'11" reserve guard who spends up to 25 hours a week in the film room of the Wildcats' basketball office. "I've wanted to be a coach since the fourth grade," says Pastner, who began reading all he could about the game as a grade-schooler and by age 12 was phoning college coaches to pick their brains and cadge game tapes. By 13 Josh had started his own high school scouting service. By 14 he and his dad, Hal, had founded a traveling AAU team, the Houston Hoops. By the time he was 15, coaches from the top programs were calling him at home in Kingwood, a Houston suburb, for a dose of The World According to Josh. A year later he was running the Hoops on his own, directing tryouts and arranging flights as well as handling the X's and O's, despite being younger than the players in his charge. Josh even started a girls' team so he could steepen his learning curve.

Three Top 20 programs offered Pastner assistant coaching jobs out of high school. (He declines to name the schools, for obvious reasons.) Instead, in 1996 Pastner, who's known as the Doogie Howser of college basketball, accepted a scholarship to play at Arizona. Now 20, he shows up at the Wildcats' basketball offices at seven each morning to help coach Lute Olson and his staff. Except to go to classes, he doesn't leave the McKale Center until 10 or 11 at night, after supervising extra shooting by players such as his roommate, point guard Mike Bibby, and swingmen Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon. Along the way, Pastner watches tape. So much tape, in fact, that he can tell you exactly why he likes....

Mississippi. All the way down to its red-and-blue uniforms, Ole Miss has that Arizona look: The Rebels have passers, handlers and shooters at every position—beginning with SEC player of the year Ansu Sesay, Pastner's homey, a graduate of Houston's Willowridge High—and, with four players scoring nine or more per game, they spread the points around. Also like Arizona, Mississippi is a good three-point-shooting team that defends against the shot so well (opponents don't make even one in three) that there's little percentage in taking it.

Ole Miss has never won a tournament game, but that doesn't faze Pastner, who notes that the edition of the Rebels that reached the NCAAs a year ago is back essentially intact. And there should be no question about the moxie of a team that fell behind 24-11 at Rupp Arena on Feb. 14 and then came back to beat Kentucky. " Mississippi is experienced," says Pastner. "It has a star player. And its style will be hard to prepare for on short notice."

The same is true of TCU and its star, forward Lee Nailon. Horned Frogs coach Billy Tubbs, who made NCAA tournament noise with perennial underdog Lamar in the late 1970s and took Oklahoma to the '88 championship game, has another fearless, up-tempo crew. Like Arizona, TCU has three perimeter scorers and the ability, with reserve James Penny, to field five players who can score facing the basket—although point guard Prince Fowler, like Bibby, doesn't look first to shoot. Also like the '97 champs, the Horned Frogs can claim that they have been denied respect. Though Texas Christian hopped through its WAC schedule unbeaten, it wasn't admitted to the coaches' Top 25 until Feb. 16. "TCU plays that style, up and down," says Pastner. "The Frogs are like us in that they don't have set places on the floor. How do you set up your scout team?"

It's hard to think of a No. 2 seed as a team that might sneak up on anybody, but there's such a perception gap between the four No. Is and the rest of the field that Connecticut arguably qualifies as a sleeper. There has been very little whoopee surrounding the Huskies this season—certainly nowhere near the amount of two years ago, when UConn took All-America Ray Allen and a top seeding into the tournament, only to fail to reach the Southeast Regional final. Now that Olson has finally had his hair messed up in a Monday-night celebration, the Huskies' Jim Calhoun shares the mantle of Coach Most Overdue with Kansas's Roy Williams and Purdue's Gene Keady.

Other evidence of UConn's Arizona-ness: a precocious freshman point guard, Khalid El-Amin, who does the nation's best impression of the Bibby of a year ago; a three-guard attack; and a victory over Stanford thanks to speed, versatility and defensive pressure. "With Khalid and sophomores Kevin Freeman and Jake Voskuhl, the Huskies aren't real old," Pastner points out, intending a compliment. "Last year we had a sense of confidence that all the work we put in, the extra shooting and extra weightlifting, would pay off. That's one of the good things about being young-you don't know any better. In the tournament we were just kids running around."

Clemson is like the 1996-97 Wildcats in that it received a middling No. 6 seed as a result of a rocky regular season, and in that one of its critical cogs, guard Terrell McIntyre, has been hampered by infirmities, as Simon was a year ago. But Clemson, picked as high as No. 5 in the preseason, is at full strength again. "From the tape I saw of the Tigers' second game with Duke, they're very disciplined," Pastner says. "Remember, too, that they have experience. They made the Sweet 16 last year." Pastner also notes that Clemson finished tied for fourth in the ACC and made the NCAA field at 21-9. A year ago Arizona placed fifth in its league and lost nine games.

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