Tigers coach Josh Pastner likes to talk about how there are three parts to the college basketball season. The University of Memphis aced their final run through the Conference USA regular season (going 16-0 in Part 1).
They carried a No. 20 Associated Press national ranking into the C-USA Conference Tournament (Part 2). And all anyone can talk about is Part 3 – the NCAA Tournament.
Yet even before the Tigers started play on Thursday, March 16, in the conference tournament in Tulsa, they were picking up all kinds of awards for their performance in Part 1. Joe Jackson was the C-USA Player of the Year. Pastner earned the well-named Gene Bartow C-USA Coach of the Year award.
Despite perfection in Conference USA and being named Coach of the Year, Memphis and head coach Josh Pastner will need to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament for critics to deem the season a success. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)
In addition, D.J. Stephens was the Defensive Player of the Year and Chris Crawford the Sixth Man of the Year. Jackson was first-team All C-USA and Stephens, Geron Johnson and Adonis Thomas were third-team. Shaq Goodwin made the All-Freshman team.
So a standing ovation and a round of applause for one and all are in order.
Thing is, people sit back down after standing ovations. They then turn their attention to what’s next. At this writing, the Tigers’ fate in the league tournament was unknown. But at some level, it was a sidebar. The Tigers took a 27-4 record into the conference tourney and had done enough to earn an at-large NCAA bid in the event of a stumble.
Besides, it is Part 3 (drum roll, The Big Dance!) that matters first, most and always. Pastner and many of these players have had two trips to the tournament without a win. They still don’t have a victory over a Top 25 team in this era, either.
No, none of this is news to anyone who has been paying attention. And Pastner finds the subject as tiresome as media members find his relentless stump speech for the league – “really good teams, really good players, well-coached, high-level.”
So whether entirely fair or not – and there is an argument to be made that too much weight is given to what happens in the NCAAs – Pastner and this now-experienced team have reached the point of no return. Previously, there was room to say the young coach and his young players were still growing and just needed a little more time.
But if the junior point guard is the Player of the Year and Pastner is Coach of the Year, time is up. Again, at this writing, the Tigers’ likely seed is but a guess – an outside shot at a 5 if everything breaks right, perhaps as low as 11 in the event of conference tourney disaster. Most likely, a 7.
Whatever the number, the Tigers will be face-to-face with a team about as good as they are. That team may play fast. That team may play slow. That team may have a little more experience, or a little less.
It doesn’t matter. Nor does venue, crowd atmosphere, or any other potential excuse.
“Play for the name on the jersey,” Jackson said, brushing everything else aside.
Predictably, as Pastner looked toward the Tigers’ first opponent in the C-USA Tournament (Tulane, which beat Marshall in the opening round), he called them “two high-level teams.” Each went 6-10 in the same league in which the Tigers went undefeated. But soon enough, any praise Pastner wants to dish about the next opponent will be more or less true. A legit team awaits in the NCAA Tournament. Pastner and his players will be tested by somebody that looks a lot more like Louisville, VCU, Minnesota, or at least Xavier (the four teams that beat Memphis), than Tulane or Marshall.
“We’re in good hands,’ Thomas said in reference to Pastner.
He may be right. Most Tigers fans and, yes, most media members, hope that he is right. For this is a likeable team and this is a likeable coach.
But results matter. After all, that is why the Tigers just collected all those awards from Part 1.