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January 7, 2014

Are Criticisms of Pastner's Strategies Well-Founded?



The outcry over the Memphis Tigers' 69-53 home loss to the Cincinnati Bearcats continues in full throat, and the consensus around Tiger Nation seems to be that head coach Josh Pastner dropped the ball with some of his coaching decisions. The criticisms seem to focus on the following three (3) basic ideas:

Pastner is not getting enough playing time for the big men, especially Austin Nichols and Dominic Woodson.

There also seems to be a growing opinion that the four-guard sets, featuring seniors Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Michael Dixon and Geron Johnson, need to be permanently scrapped.

Four-star freshman forwards Kuran Iverson and Nick King need to see the floor more.

Do these criticisms have merit? Why or why not? Let's look at each complaint one at a time and see, using the Cincinnati loss as our primary point of reference.

1) Pastner is not getting enough playing time for the big men, especially Austin Nichols and Dominic Woodson.

In a word, I believe this statement is categorically false.

First of all, a lot of fans are saying that Memphis couldn't get a rebound against Cincinnati, yet the Tigers won the battle of the boards, 41-38. Cincy won the battle of second chance points, but only 14-10.

Additionally, against the Bearcats, Shaq Goodwin was second on the team with 35 minutes played, Nichols logged 11 minutes and David Pellom managed 23. That's 69 minutes out of 200, or 34.5 percent. To my eye, that's about right. I personally would have tried to get Pellom around the 26-28 minute mark but that's splitting hairs; I'm fine with the minutes parsed out to that trio.

Why am I okay with Austin Nichols getting only 11 minutes? Because he didn't play well enough to deserve any more than that.

Now, let me preface that statement by saying the following: I absolutely adore Austin Nichols' game, his physical skills, his NBA upside and just about anything else about him. He is going to be one of the best Tigers of the Josh Pastner era.

But right now, he's not playing very well. Period.

Witness his own father's post on Facebook Monday night: "Please pray for Austin and the Tigers as he's gotten off track lately! - Mark Nichols"

Austin Nichols looked totally out of sorts against Cincinnati. In his 11 minutes, he scored two points, registered two blocks and pulled down a single rebound. He looked as if he didn't belong on the Division I level playing basketball.

I know he won't play like this forever, but Saturday, he got the minutes that he deserved.

Woodson is just too heavy to see many minutes. He labors to get up and down the floor after a couple trips, and it is my opinion that he doesn't deserve to see many minutes right now. I totally agree with Pastner and his staff on this one.

Now, what I would like to see is more touches and shot attempts for the bigs. Goodwin, Nichols and Pellom combined for just 14 shot attempts in their 69 minutes of action. By contrast, Johnson hoisted up 13 shots in 28 minutes all by himself. In fact, the self-styled "Four Kings" shot 6-13 (Jackson), 2-13 (Johnson), 4-12 (Dixon) and 2-11 (Crawford), or a combined 14-of-49 (28.6 percent).

That's abysmal. Even with Nichols' poor outing (1-4), the big men converted at a respectable 50 percent pace (7-of-14). That tells me that the Tigers should have distributed at least 10 or 15 more shots to the big guys, simply because we know they wouldn't have shot any worse than the guards did. Which segues us nicely to point number two:

2) There also seems to be a growing opinion that the four-guard sets, featuring seniors Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Michael Dixon and Geron Johnson, need to be permanently scrapped.

This is a much trickier question to answer. Having the four guards on the floor together makes Memphis virtually impossible to press, as Dixon and Jackson are excellent ball-handlers, while Crawford and Johnson are tremendous secondary handlers.

But neither Dixon, Jackson nor Johnson is a pure point guard, and Crawford, though he is a fine passer and facilitator, is not a good enough handler to run the point, either. Also, while Dixon and Jackson are tremendous scorers, they aren't pure shooters who can be counted on to deposit clutch trey balls into the bottom of the net night after night.

While Crawford has the reputation of being a shooter, you can't tell it by his performance (1-of-5 or 20 percent against Cincy, just 35.2 percent on the year).

Right now, the guards' shot selection is questionable at best. The quartet seem to be in a competition with each other, as if they're comparing "shots attempted" when they look at the stat sheet after the game. If one is hoisting a volume of shots, the other three are only too willing to follow his lead.

This is a basketball team that must share the ball to succeed. So while I do not have a problem with the four-guard set when the opposition "goes small," I do feel that the strategy is overused at the present time. The four senior guards combined for 128 minutes while shooting 28.6 percent from the floor and committing 11 of the Tigers' 16 turnovers.

Either be more efficient and distribute the shots more evenly, or sit.

Which brings us to the third and final topic:

3) Four-star freshman forwards Kuran Iverson and Nick King need to see the floor more.

To be blunt, until Iverson learns what is a good shot and what is not, he doesn't deserve playing time. I know that Kuran is supremely talented, and I have little doubt that he can be a star at the collegiate level. But all he has done in his limited time on the floor is force up increasingly terrible shots from just about anywhere on the court.

With the talent level of his teammates, this is patently unnecessary. Instead of coming into the game jacking, it would be great to see Iverson take time to get into the flow of the contest before putting up an attempt. It would also be a big plus for him to spend more time driving to the cup and forcing the defense to make decisions as opposed to throwing up wild shots with no regard to what weaknesses the opposition might have that could be exploited.

King, on the other hand, exhibits outstanding shot selection, and is arguably the team's best outside shooter. However, Nick does not yet move his feet well enough on defense to be considered anything but a liability on that side of the ball, and his ball-handling needs to show drastic improvement. He's also still struggling to integrate his right hand into his game.

Iverson and King are intriguing talents, but neither is prepared right now to help this Tiger team win games against high level competition.

In the final analysis, it's easy to forget that Memphis is 12-3 overall, 1-1 in the conference. Yes, the loss to Cincinnati was a bad one, but still just a single setback. With a 22-game league slate and some of the toughest competition in the country top-to-bottom, Tiger fans need to understand that there will be plenty other losses; it wouldn't shock me for the AAC regular season champion to lose 6-to-8 games this year.

Memphis should be in the hunt for the inaugural league title.

Pastner and the Tigers still have plenty of time to get their rotation and shot distribution together. When they do, they will be a dangerous team. I still believe that this is a Sweet Sixteen basketball team at a minimum, and a Final Four contender when they're playing their best ball, which is still in front of them.


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