Josh Pastner adores Conference USA. If he were to put this sentiment to music, he would pick up a guitar and sing C-USA-inspired tributes such as “Hard to Love” and “You Don’t Know Her Like I Do.” As it is, he will send Valentine’s Day roses and chocolates to the league’s administrative offices in Irving, Texas.
I’m kidding but, well, not really. Like you, I’ve listened and rolled my eyes at Pastner’s platitudes about the league. I’ve understood from day one that, at some level, as basketball coach at the University of Memphis, it would be crazy for Pastner to do anything other than attempt to build up a league that lies in so much RPI rubble.
As of Tuesday, Jan. 29, www.realtimerpi.com had C-USA as the 11th league in the land. But the closer you look at the 12 members of the conference, the worse the view becomes. Southern Miss had the top RPI at 40, Memphis was 49th and UTEP 66th. The other nine schools were north of 100 and five of them were ranked from 173 (UAB) to 309 (Rice). This doesn’t scream “at-large bid” to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.
But to be fair, there are 20 conferences rated lower than C-USA. On the other hand, the SEC is ranked eighth and is superior to C-USA top to bottom. Yet the SEC is routinely bashed for how weak it is in a year in which defending national champion Kentucky is still trying to write a resume that is NCAA-worthy.
None of this, of course, bridles Pastner’s passion. A couple of snippets from the coach a few days after a one-point win over a Marshall team that lost its previous game by 56 points:
“I had multiple people after the game (say), ‘that is the best 2-2 team in league play or 9-11 team that I’ve seen in a long time.’ They are dangerous.”
“Marshall has good players and that’s what it is throughout Conference USA. It’s just the league doesn’t get the respect it deserves. It’s a great league. I’ll keep pounding my fist on the scorer’s table, my head on the wall, and hopefully people will hear me eventually about Conference USA.”
More likely, the coach will end up with a headache and sore knuckles. If he wants to make the case for Marshall, or any team, having some good players, fine. If he wants to say the league gets a bum rap, at some level he’s right if only because there are worse leagues out there.
But when he gets wound up and calls C-USA a “great league” he loses judge and jury. The worst part is, with the Tigers clearly the most talented team in the conference, the only way for other teams to back up the coach’s case is by beating Memphis. Meantime, if the Tigers run the table it’s proof the league is devoid of any real competition. It’s a classic no-win situation.
Yet I marvel at Pastner’s commitment to the cause, especially given that next season the Tigers will be playing in some version of the Big East. He’s perhaps the only coach on the planet who could pledge allegiance to C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky and have it sound genuine.
“I love the conference,” Pastner said. “I love the administration in the conference. Britton’s a friend, Judy MacLeod, associate commissioner, all the way down to Courtney Morrison Archer (one of several assistant commissioners) … everybody in there. They’re all good people. I’m a loyal guy, so I got their back.”
Commendable, even kinda sweet. But come Valentine’s Day the coach also might want to send some roses and chocolates north – to the NCAA offices in Indianapolis.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. He and Jon Albright host the “Jon & Don Show” on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays.