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VOL. 8 | NO. 47 | Saturday, November 14, 2015

Hoops & Dreams

Fans wait for Tigers basketball program’s return to prominence

By Don Wade

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They were but a few words, yet they seemed to capture the mindset of the University of Memphis basketball program’s high-expectation fan base.

“Get back to like it was,” said former Tigers guard Jeremy Hunt.

The context: Hunt was putting on a charity Alumni Game last June at Elma Roane Fieldhouse. By all accounts, the evening was a rousing success. Great memories, a good time, renewed passion for the boys in blue and gray.

“I just wanted to get fans excited about Memphis basketball,” said Hunt, who went to Craigmont High School and played for the Tigers during the John Calipari years.

Josh Pastner, who is entering his seventh season as Memphis coach, takes issue with the prevailing notion that fans are not especially excited and hopeful. His stance is that some media members – and a few rogues on Twitter – are invested in carrying a negative narrative.

But whatever the reality of the collective psyche of Tiger fans, the last 15 years have changed the greater Memphis basketball story and, by extension, altered how seasons – and the coaches and players that win and lose the games – are judged.

Pastner’s last NCAA Tournament team in 2014, led by four senior guards in local players Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, and transfers Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon, openly aimed at the Final Four. Before the tournament started, Johnson channeled Joe Namath and “guaranteed” the Tigers would win at least two tournament games.

When they lost by 18 points in the Round of 32 to Virginia, Johnson was just as bold in his post-mortem.

“Underachieved,” he said in a quiet corner of the locker room that day in Raleigh, N.C. “Underachieved.”

If perception is reality, then Johnson’s summation lives on with those waiting for Tigers basketball to deliver something more, to stir the echoes and hang a banner (preferably, one that won’t have to be taken down).

After Duke won its fifth national championship last season – and third since 2001 – Sporting News made a list of the Top 15 college basketball programs since the 2000-2001 season. Memphis came in at No. 14, with criteria including not just NCAA Tournament appearances and results, but also overall winning percentage, players’ college accolades and players selected in the first round of the NBA Draft (think first-team All-Americans Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts).

Like all attempts to measure and rank college basketball programs, this was not exact. But it does show the staying power of the best of the Calipari years, from the 2005-06 season through the 2008-09 season, when Memphis reached at least the Sweet 16 all four years, three times reached the Elite Eight, and in the 2007-08 season made the NCAA Finals.

In sum: a 137-14 record (.907 winning percentage), with the team winning at least 33 games in each of those four seasons and living in the Top 10, and often Top 5, of the national polls.

For many, that’s the definition of “get back to like it was.”

The Calipari conspiracy

Lee Fowler, athletic director at the University of South Carolina Upstate, and an assistant coach and athletic administration member at Memphis from 1979 to 1994, says fans might want to exercise a little caution in evaluating their current coach and the state of the program.

“Is it really broken,” Fowler asked, “or having a little sputtering time and gonna come back?”

Put another way:

Do you believe, as Pastner does, that he gets unfairly compared to Calipari’s last four years here?

Do the basketball gods have it in for the young, first-time head coach? Look, for one example, at the cushy draw Tennessee had in 2014 when Cuonzo Martin dodged Duke and became a Sweet 16 coach.

And finally, could anyone measure up to that four-year .907 winning percentage?

“That sort of became the bar, and that wasn’t Memphis basketball before and that won’t be Memphis basketball again,” said Gary Parrish, college basketball columnist for cbssports.com and the Commercial Appeal’s Tigers beat writer from 2002 to 2006. “That’s not a Memphis basketball thing. That’s a John Calipari thing.”

Pastner’s own record at Memphis is nothing to be ashamed of: 148-58 (.718). He is one of only three Memphis coaches to take a team to the NCAAs four straight years (2011-2014), with Calipari and Dana Kirk (1982-1985) being the others.

Sometimes accused of being Pollyannaish, Pastner says he just wants to be judged on a body of work larger than Calipari’s historic run here.

“Everything is based on four years,” he said. “We’ve helped (the program’s overall) winning percentage. What we have not accomplished is getting to the second weekend (of the NCAAs). There’s no denying that.

“But I think the media should be pro-Memphis regardless of whether you do like me or don’t like me as a coach. It’s not all about throwing rainbows and drinking milk and eating cookies, but if you’re critical all you do is hurt the city.”

Sporting News college basketball columnist Mike DeCourcy, who covered the Tigers as a beat writer in the mid-1990s when Larry Finch was coach, has marveled at the reaction of Tiger fans post-Calipari.

Their discontent came to a head recently with the university’s decision to honor Calipari with a dinner, and perhaps a ceremony at a Tigers game, in celebration of his induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame; university president M. David Rudd ended up canceling all plans and apologizing to fans.

It didn’t help, of course, that upon learning he had been voted into the hall of fame, Calipari, now coach of blue blood Kentucky, said of his days at UMass and Memphis: “I loved those jobs. But you were at the little table. You weren’t at the big table. You never got to carve the turkey. You had the plastic forks and plates.”

No, that didn’t go over well.

“The bitterness is misguided,” counters DeCourcy, who appears on local radio each week on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM. “The most important thing is what it took to get him to leave (a great offer from a top-tier program). He was never going to go to N.C. State. That was just him using that for whatever he wanted at that point in Memphis.

“And the whole, ‘He stole our team,’ is nonsense. If he had taken Penny Hardaway, William Bedford, Keith Lee and Elliot Perry to Kentucky, I get that. But that group of players (DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall might have been Tigers) weren’t coming because it was Memphis, they were coming because it was him.”

Duke with grits?

So let’s step back from the last 15 years of Memphis basketball for a moment.

Going farther back we know that there was a Final Four before Calipari (like his, Kirk’s in 1985 was vacated by the NCAA), and that Gene Bartow led then-Memphis State into the NCAA Finals in 1973 where John Wooden’s UCLA team anchored by Bill Walton was simply too much.

“Memphians, in our own crazy minds, think we are the Duke of the South,” said Hank McDowell, a Tiger from 1977 to 1981, a former NBA player, and now color commentator on Grizzlies radio broadcasts. “But I’d love to get to the Sweet 16 more often than not, because if you get there, every once in a while you’ll creep a little further.”

Cedric Henderson, who grew up here and was a Tiger from 1993-97 before playing in the NBA, recalls the team missing the NCAAs his freshman year when the Tigers were still the biggest show in town.

“They got on Larry Finch like crazy,” Henderson said.

What’s more, the early years of Calipari were not particularly pleasant. It took until his third season (2002-03) to reach the NCAAs, his fourth to win a game in the tournament, and his sixth to break through when the Tigers advanced to the Elite Eight in 2006.

“If Twitter had existed in Calipari’s first five years, that would have been really ugly,” said Parrish, who also works as a studio analyst for CBS Sports.

If judging the Tigers over the last, say, 50 years, DeCourcy believes they are a Top 30 program. But there is an underlying fear among fans that the program’s stature is slipping.

To be sure, it was a difficult summer. Homegrown talent Austin Nichols transferred to Virginia, and the Memphis athletic department botched the public relations of the move at every turn.

The decision was made to replace Memphis Madness with a Fan Fest; it drew a small crowd and that, too, was mishandled. And then there was the Calipari celebration fiasco and a noted local recruit that the Tigers wanted – Bolton point guard Jaylen Fisher – choosing UNLV over Memphis.

“You can’t lose your star player,” Henderson said of Nichols leaving the program. “That’s like losing Michael Jordan from the Bulls.”

Nichols’ departure is a big reason that at American Athletic Conference Media Days the Tigers were picked to finish fifth – well, that and an 18-14 finish last season.

“A team changes every year, regardless if you have the same players or not,” said senior Shaq Goodwin. “Being picked fifth, that’s all right. It motivates us a lot.”

The path forward

Not so long ago, fans and administrators worried some school might steal Pastner. Now, everyone worries about hanging onto football coach Justin Fuente.

Pastner, 38, is under pretty much nonstop scrutiny, with two main talking points being the early exits of local players and his refusal to add a seasoned former head coach to his staff.

Besides Nichols, Nick King transferred to Alabama and before him Tarik Black to Kansas.

“The problem Josh has is three guys who sat down at press conferences and said, ‘It’s always been my dream to be a Tiger,’ at some point it was no longer their dream,” Parrish said.

Pastner also takes criticism for the way he’s constructed his staff. His own reputation is as a great recruiter with less than fully developed sideline skills. His lead assistants are known as recruiters – Robert Kirby, Damon Stoudamire and Keelon Lawson, the last being a have-to-hire in order to get sons Dedric and K.J. Lawson, now freshmen.

Problem is, even national championship coaches – from Billy Donovan when he was at Florida to Rick Pitino at Louisville – have had experienced head coaches on staff to, at minimum, act as sounding boards. Parrish says Pastner remains active in the recruiting process even in the early stages – work normally delegated to assistants.

“If anybody could have a non-recruiter on staff, it’s Josh,” he said.

Fowler and Henderson, however, have other theories on why Pastner has not brought in a veteran coach.

“It’s always good to have a mentor,” Henderson said, “but who knows that he doesn’t? He might have it. He just doesn’t have him on the bench.”

Said Fowler: “It’s about trust. I’ve seen older guys that tried to step on a head coach’s toes.”

In any event, a new season is about to start. And with the football team receiving national acclaim, and the Grizzlies coming off a fifth straight postseason appearance and Marc Gasol re-signing for five more years, Tigers basketball is perhaps more of an underdog in the fight for local attention than it has been in a very long time.

“We embrace that role,” said guard Avery Woodson. “We know a lot of people don’t believe in us, but we have enough confidence and toughness to not every worry about it.”

To what extent Pastner worries, well, that’s another matter.

So, too, what this team’s young players might be able to achieve.

“The Lawsons, with the over-hype, you won’t know till they get going, but the practices I’ve been at they look pretty doggone polished,” McDowell said. “And Nick Marshall (a 6-foot-11, 248-pound freshman from Lexington, Tenn.) has taken huge steps forward. He’s one of those guys you’re gonna look at and go, ‘Wow, that’s better than I thought it was gonna be.’”

It’s a sentiment all Tiger fans would love to repeat at season’s end. Until then, DeCourcy suggests fans expect the best with the knowledge there’s more than enough time to adjust to the worst.

“It’s silly to decide in November it’s a lost season,” he said. “There’s a lot of basketball to be played.”

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