This is the fifth in a five-part review of the 2009-10 Tiger basketball season.
• SUNNY SIDE UP
“In my view, we’re not supposed to win any games. We’re going to have to earn what we get. We are not a team that’s going to come in and overbear teams. We’re gonna have to fight, kick, scratch. We have to come to play. I told our guys, you better have your egos in check. You better stay humble. There are no “supposed to” wins. We will have to play a nearly perfect game, night in and night out.” — Josh Pastner, November 20, 2009
He walks, talks, acts, even seems to breathe optimism. On opening night last November, when Tiger fans were first presented the team’s video intro, their first glimpse of new coach Josh Pastner came as a basketball slowly rotated forward — to the theme of “2001 A Space Odyssey” — and Pastner’s head slowly appeared, as if over a horizon. And the rest of the season, this image brought thunderous applause, from courtside to the nosebleeds at FedExForum.
However many headlines John Calipari made as Tiger coach for nine years, none was for optimism. Even as he won 137 games over his last four years in Memphis, Calipari did so against the perception that the national media — and sometimes, the local media — was clouding the program with negativity, giving voice to “the miserables” as they thirsted for a basketball program both successful and pure.
Now you have Pastner, thanking everyone not named Josh Pastner for making the Memphis program a success. Two things you can count on in a Pastner press conference: the team just beaten — or the next team on the schedule — is “well-coached” and the victory is a real credit to his players and assistant coaches. (I had my recorder in front of Calipari for nine years and never heard him so much as mention an assistant’s name.)
In coaching terms, Pastner remains a kid. He’ll turn 33 in September. But next November, he’ll lead the top-ranked recruiting class in the country to battle as a “veteran coach.” There will be a new dynamic, in that every observer — including national and local media — will have something to compare him with. If any coach in America had a free pass for the 2009-10 season, it was The Kid Who Picked Up the Pieces After Coach Cal Left. Not only did Pastner pick up the pieces, but he built a team that seemed to reflect the scrappiness he holds in such high regard. With a 24-win season now under his belt — and Joe Jackson, Will Barton, and Jelan Kendrick on their way — Pastner can take the program he’s already made his own back to a place his predecessor came to take for granted.
The 2009-10 Tigers needed more offense from their big men. They needed to knock off a top-20 team. They had precious little depth and were rescued by the transfer home of Elliot Williams. But the story of this Tiger season — the one we’ll reflect upon over the years and decades ahead — will be the dawn of the Josh Pastner Era. Rising gently over the horizon of that metaphorical basketball . . . .