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December 2, 2013

Pastner Gets Gorilla Off Back With Gritty Victory


It all began so innocently.

Memphis head coach Josh Pastner got his first opportunity to coach against a top 10 ranked team in just his second game as sideline general for the Tigers. He lost that game, 57-55, to Kansas in the Hall of Fame Showcase, dropping to 1-1 overall in his head coaching career and 0-1 against top 10s.

The Tigers famously had the ball in their best player's hands, Elliot Williams, with a chance to win that ball game in regulation. They fell short, but Memphis basketball fans were effusive in their praise of Pastner and his scrappy Tigers for coming so close to pulling a huge upset, as Kansas was #1 at the time.

There were three (3) other shots at ranked teams that year, all Memphis losses. But the Tigers ended the campaign with 24 wins overall, and the general perception in the minds of the fans seemed to be overwhelmingly positive.

As the ensuing years rolled by, and the losses to top 25 teams piled up inexplicably, Memphis fans became less and less understanding, however. Perhaps the most quoted coaching statistic in the country could be heard rolling off the lips of Memphis Tiger fans.

They kept track of every additional loss to ranked opponents, and they never let anyone forget as the tally rose. Coming into the 2013-'14 season the ledger stood at 0-12 and counting.

And there wasn't a Memphis Tiger fan (or hater) in the country that couldn't tell you that.

So when Memphis went to Stillwater, OK and laid a big fat egg, falling 101-82 in a game that they trailed by as many as 34 points, the whispers of discontent became a loud, irresistible torrent of anger, disdain, frustration and just about any other negative emotion one can imagine.

Here was a coach with 110 wins in just four full seasons at the helm of Memphis, yet the ground swell of fans calling for him to be fired was shocking.

Pastner's record has improved every single season he's coached the Tigers. He went from 24-10 and the NIT to 25-10 and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This was followed by 26-9 and the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Then Pastner pulled off just the sixth 30-win season in Tiger basketball history, going 31-5 and winning his first ever game in the Big Dance.

That win was over a St. Mary's team that was in the top 25 of the national coaches' poll and pushed Memphis into the NCAA Tournament's third round. But still, fans and talking heads around the nation were fixated on the regular season failings.

So it came down to this. Memphis, having been publicly humiliated by Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State just two weeks ago, needed to win the nationally televised rematch in order to save face nationally, and also to get Josh Pastner off the schneid.

All the good will from the close loss to Kansas back in 2009 was long gone.

All of the incredible recruiting successes were now inexplicably being used against Pastner. He was being continually lambasted as a young coach in over his head, losing with superior talent.

Every loss against top 25 competition was finding a new batch of Monday morning quarterbacks decrying Pastner's teams as overrated, soft or worse (too many terms aren't family friendly and must be omitted here). Pastner didn't know when to call timeouts, what defenses to run and he couldn't teach a lick of basketball skill.

Through it all, Josh Pastner remained happy and upbeat, never being seen without his trademark broad smile on his face.

Even that rankled some fans, who questioned how Pastner could dare smile after the televised loss to Oklahoma State on November 19.

Yes, the Memphis Tigers needed to win against Oklahoma State Sunday on ESPN2. And when they stumbled and went into halftime trailing 42-32, Facebook and Twitter were full of fans doubting Pastner and the Tigers.

They erased that deficit and won the game with stops on the Cowboys' final two offensive possessions. Along the way, they held Marcus Smart to 12 points on 4-of-13 shooting with 5 turnovers, including stripping him on those final two opportunities of the game.

The Tigers showed that they could be gritty and tough, grabbing two offensive rebounds and picking up a 50-50 ball that helped them drain the clock down from 1:59 remaining all the way to 0:31 left, while clinging to a miniscule 69-68 lead.

And Josh Pastner was the baby-faced Geppetto, pulling all the strings, making all the right substitutions at all the right times. He got Michael Dixon back in the game, and stuck with the senior from Kansas City even though he jacked up a wild three that missed.

Dixon rewarded his coach with nine huge second half points.

Pastner had his team hounding Smart everywhere he went on the court, double-teaming him so aggressively that Phil Forte was often left wide open and torched Memphis for a game-high 19, including 3-of-5 from downtown.

But it all worked, so nothing else matters.

Unfortunately, that's what it comes down to in our age of instant gratification. All we care about is results. Did you win or did you lose? That's all we really want to know. And like it or not, don't expect attitudes to change much any time too soon.

Sunday night, Tiger Nation, Josh Pastner just got King Kong off his back, defeating a team that looked for all the world like a potential Final Four participant. And who knows, maybe they'll make it that far in the Big Dance, and perhaps even face Memphis there for the rubber match.

But for now, my suggestion to Pastner is to keep on winning. He needs to beat Louisville this season. He needs to beat Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston and SMU, too. Take down Gonzaga.

Earn all the "signature wins" you can muster, then make it to the Sweet Sixteen, which only requires a pair of victories in the NCAA Tournament.

That's the only way to silence the naysayers. Just keep on winning. Anything else invites them to place that oversized gorilla squarely on your back once again.


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