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November 21, 2013

Time Has Come for Pastner to Beat Top 25 Opponent

"Mediocrity is excellent to the eyes of mediocre people." - Joseph Joubert

It all seems too familiar for Memphis basketball fans. The Tigers, faced with top 20 status and talent in bunches and a heralded incoming crop of freshmen, play an opponent who is also pretty good and flop harder than Chris Paul.

The problem for Josh Pastner and the rest of his coaching staff is that Memphis fans are not mediocre people, and they do not expect mediocre results. This is a fan base that witnessed He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named run off a string of 30-win seasons before leaving for Kentucky.

This is a fan base that remembers the Dana Kirk years of yore, with Keith Lee, William Bedford, Andre Turner and the Final Four.

This is a fan base that expects more from its head coach of five (5) years.

I helped cover Tigers' athletics for a few years, starting from my junior year of high school all the way until the second semester of my freshman year of college. I had to put aside my fan-hood in order to cover the very team I grew up rooting for, but I soldiered on because I'd do anything to be around the Tiger program. I saw a lot from behind-the-scenes and I wouldn't trade my experiences for anything.

But, Tuesday's loss to Oklahoma State was something I've never before experienced.

I attended the game when Pastner and his baby cubs were blown out at Tennessee. I watched live the missed dunks which ruined all momentum Memphis had against Syracuse before being handily defeated. I watched as Elliot Williams had the ball in his hands with a chance to pull the upset over Kansas, only to fall short, in Game Two of the Pastner era.

Point being that under Pastner's regime, there has often been more bad than good in out of conference games, but Memphis could feasibly lose all of those and win the C-USA tournament title in order to make it to the NCAA tournament and lose the only game they played in, aside from Saint Mary's.

It's pretty embarrassing for a coach whose job is anywhere but the WAC or MWC to call Saint Mary's his best win in five years on the job.

However, the calls for Pastner to be fired are very extreme. This is a guy who has kept Memphis basketball afloat after being left spare, unwanted parts of a dominant college basketball team. Meanwhile, through the chaos, Pastner has seemingly embraced the city and its fan base better than his predecessor ever did.

In all fairness, though, it's time for Pastner to start adding better wins to his resume. He doesn't have the luxury of fumbling around OOC and dominating league play because of the school's move to a better conference, with UConn and Louisville on the schedule twice, plus the possibility of a rematch against Oklahoma State and games against Florida & Gonzaga.

The Tigers' struggles against top 25 teams have been nothing short of self-inflicted, repetitive losses that are reminiscent of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Praying for a made shot here, a held whistle there is not how you beat good teams consistently. A top 25 team won't put themselves in a position to lose a game because of the referees, nor will they depend on making a better shot or two.

Memphis needs better shot selection for 40 minutes against upper tier competition. The Tigers also need to get stops on a consistent basis on the defensive end.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Memphis needs better coaching and player development.

All this isn't meant to be a call to fire Josh. In all my dealings with Coach Pastner, he's been nothing short of genuine and kind, lost traits in coaching these days. For fans vehemently saying that Pastner's recruiting classes are overrated, take a step back. Every single player Josh has signed isn't overrated. It's just not possible.

Look at how Nick King fared Tuesday night for an immediate example.

And as has been repeated ad nauseum, the Tigers aren't running offensive sets; instead, they're relying on more of a "do-him" philosophy on offense. The same offense that Pastner had with Elliot Williams in his first year as a head coach is still around four (4) years later, and it still hasn't produced much of note. Perhaps it's time for less top of the key screens followed a dribble-drive and forced shots.

The press that Pastner implemented this season either needs to be fine-tuned or scrapped completely, and the Tigers continue to struggle defending the perimeter. If a casual fan can see Marcus Smart doing whatever he wanted against Memphis' defense as if he was the mighty Hercules and call for a box-and-1 or a triangle-and-2, why Pastner can't see or call for it?

I've always held the opinion that the X's and O's of coaching is the easiest part---relating to players and motivating them is immensely harder. And at this point in Pastner's juncture, new contract and all, it's fair to ask how he's relating to his players and inspiring their play, which has always seemed chaotic against quality teams as evidenced also by the early games against VCU and Minnesota last year.

Memphis ended up losing both of those games handily, by the way, but after a mid-December loss to eventual NCAA champions Louisville, they didn't lose again until late February against Xavier.

Those 18 straight wins, though, came against teams with a combined winning percentage of .547, and Memphis is playing in the "little Big East" this year as opposed to the woeful C-USA.

It would appear to me that some things have to change from a foundation standpoint for Memphis to again show college basketball that it belongs in the company of the elite.

Belittle Calipari's accomplishments since he left and curse at his name all you want (and I have done both plenty of times) but it's only fair to point out that the man is truly one of the best in the game despite having a revolving door of players year-in and year-out, and he has a national championship ring and numerous Elite Eights and Final Fours (whether official or stricken from the record books) to prove it.

And he returned Memphis to elite status. Can the unbiased observer truly consider the Tiger basketball program elite now, with just one win at the NCAA Tournament in five years? You can't seriously argue with a straight face that Tiger hoops deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Duke, Kansas, North Carolina or even (shudder) defending national champion Louisville right now.

Pastner's team is experienced, and it is talented. There are no more excuses for poor performance in big games. He owes it to himself to turn things around against top 25 teams, and against quality teams in general, because he's gotten paid too well to squander those precious opportunities so far.

But more importantly, he owes it to the city of Memphis and all the fans of Tiger Nation to not only beat up on the teams that he is supposed to defeat, but to also beat some of the ranked teams on the schedule.

It began as a few losses against ranked teams. At first, it could all be written off and excused. Then, after a string of a few more losses, it became a disturbing pattern.

0-13 against ranked teams in five regular seasons, however, begins to define who you are and what your team is identified with, namely, losers against elite competition.

University of Memphis basketball fans demand and deserve better than that.

Coach Pastner better start delivering on the promises he made in his introductory press conference, and I truly believe he will. But belief and concrete results are two entirely different things, and right now what matters most is what's on the scoreboard at the end of games.

A big regular season goose egg is shown prominently against ranked teams since 2009, indicating that the perceived little-school-that-could has morphed into the little-school-that-can't.

Guest columnist Taylor Davey is a former regular contributor and staff writer for TigerSportsReport.com and though he is immersed in his collegiate studies, he still follows the Tiger basketball program very closely. While his article does not necessarily echo the sentiments of TSR management, the views and opinions expressed here represent what many are feeling about the current state of the Memphis Tiger basketball program

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