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VOL. 127 | NO. 58 | Friday, March 23, 2012

Season Evaluation: Pastner Discusses Roller Coaster Year

By Don Wade

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The interviewer asked University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner if he knew how all coaches, no matter the sport, were evaluated. Pastner nodded as he received the question and smiled.

The 2011-2012 basketball season proved to be a roller coaster ride for the Tigers and head coach Josh Pastner. Despite the lofty expectations that some felt went unfulfilled, Pastner said there were big highlights this season. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“The postseason,” he said.

It wasn’t the answer the interviewer was looking for, but it was an understandable answer; because for the second year in a row Pastner’s team made the NCAA Tournament but failed to win a tournament game.

No, the answer the interviewer was seeking was broader than that. It included the disappointment of the postseason, but also the lofty hopes of the preseason and the roller coaster ride of the regular season.

Expectations, that’s how coaches are judged. That’s why when, three years ago, Pastner replaced John Calipari under dire circumstances and lost at Ole Miss in the second round of the NIT, Tiger Nation did not roar its disapproval. Expectations were low. Pastner, now 34, made a good first impression.

But two years later, and fairly or not, Pastner now is compared to the strong four-year run at the end of the Calipari Era. By those standards, Pastner is not meeting expectations with much of Tiger Nation.

It was against this backdrop that the coach sat down for a question-and-answer session with The Daily News.

Q: So coming out of the NCAA Tournament loss to Saint Louis, what’s the next step?

A: The next step is to be able to beat teams that play a style like a Michigan, like a UTEP the first time, like Saint Louis. Slow it down, muck it up, no-transition baskets, dogfight-type of games.

Q: Best part of this season?

A: Without question, it’s being 6-5 and you’ve got Christmas break, people are up in arms, and to be able to win 20 of 23, win the regular season and tournament championships. Very satisfying.

Q: Worst part?

A: Being 6-5 and knowing it could easily go the other direction and then you’re sitting here 15-15 (instead of 26-9).

Q: Most misunderstood aspect of the season?

A: When people say you don’t have control of the team. That’s the biggest crock of B.S. there is. If anyone watched Michigan State, and Tom Izzo is the best, a Hall of Fame coach, love him, one of the kids came off and was very upset and yelling at Coach Izzo. It’s happened here in Memphis. The announcer (of Michigan State’s game), says, “He’s letting him vent, what a great job by Coach Izzo.” Here in Memphis, it’s, “He doesn’t have control.” We’ve had no issues off the court. We run a very good program.

Q: So do you sometimes feel like you’re a victim of age discrimination?

A: (Laughs) No question! Not literally, but just that it frames everything. And I’m OK with that. I think it’s also following Coach Calipari, the previous success. I think the coach gets too much credit and too much blame but that’s how it’s going to be due to the escalating salaries (Pastner makes $1.7 million).

Q: Ultimately, what did you get out of taking the names off the players’ jerseys?

A: I think it got us a conference regular-season championship and got us a conference tournament (title). And it woke some guys up.

Q: You’re known for paying attention to what is said in the media, including the sports talk radio shows …

A: Let me say this, one of the myths is people think I sit all day in the car just listening to the radio. I don’t. I’m a sports guy. Most coaches will play this thing, “I don’t listen.” I think that’s B.S. You know what’s being said. When things don’t go well, you’ve got to be able to take the heat. My thing is I’ve never ducked from the question, never ducked from the interview. You don’t have to agree with me, fans or media. We can agree to disagree.

Q: You’ve said you want Will Barton and Adonis Thomas to each make his own decision about entering the NBA draft. Setting that aside, if they were to return, what can each of them gain as players?

A: Good question. Someone asked me, “Coach, isn’t it your job to make (them stay)?” I said no. If the kid doesn’t have an opportunity to get drafted, I’d tell them they need to come back. Will Barton and Adonis Thomas have a potential to get drafted in the first round; they also could be in the second round. The reason I don’t want to influence them either way is, God forbid, there’s an injury. It’s got to be on them so they have peace about it. For both guys, coming back, it allows them to mature, allows them to continue to get better. This year’s draft is very strong.

Q: Cal always held the opinion that recruiting Memphis high school players was problematic. True?

A: I’m not going to not recruit Memphis because it might not go exactly as planned and there might be some bumps in the road. Look, you want to get the best players. Coaching talent is actually hard. So much of it is psychological stuff.

Q: Still believe Conference USA is a good league?

A: I know people get on me about Conference USA, but what do people want me to say, that it’s a bad league? No, there are good teams in Conference USA.

Q: When you said the Tigers were a 5 seed, you were campaigning…

A: I thought we’d be a 6 when I said 5. I never thought we’d be an 8. Ever.

Q: And then you get that matchup with Saint Louis …

A: We’d have been better off playing Michigan State first round. Or Carolina. Or Kentucky.

Q: You know people are going to say you’re crazy for saying that?

A: I’m not saying we’d beat those guys. I’m saying the style was more conducive to us than Saint Louis’ style. And we still had a chance to win, we were up eight.

Q: We’ll close with this: If you were to give a message to Tiger Nation, something to hold onto from now until Memphis Madness, what would it be?

A: Well, I think we had a wonderful run this past year. I know everyone wanted to win in that tournament. No one wanted to win more than I did. But I’m looking forward to next season. We won’t know anything until first day of practice, who’s on the roster, what the expectations should be. But I can tell you I’m pumped. Tiger basketball, as always, is gonna be a fun ride next year. Hopefully, it can be a little smoother.

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