The 2010-11 Tiger basketball team — ranked 19th in the AP's preseason poll — takes the floor Wednesday night for an exhibition tilt with Lemoyne-Owen. Aside from Memphis Madness, it will be the first chance for fans to see the likes of Will Barton, Joe Jackson, and Tarik Black in a Tiger uniform. I sat down last week with coach Josh Pastner to discuss the upcoming season. (Opening Night is November 12th, against Centenary.)
You’re a veteran coach now. What’s different in your preparation for this season compared with your first?
I still have a lot to learn, still growing daily. I am more comfortable. You’re just going to be better in year two than in year one. As you should be better in year three than in year two. I’ve learned a lot. I always appreciate advice, constructive criticism . . . it helps me grow.
The summer and preseason have been extra busy, because we signed eight new players. We have a whole new team. We may be ranked, but a lot of that is based on recruiting expectations, not productivity on the floor. Having them understand the structure and discipline . . . the only difference this year is that I was the head coach who recruited them.
This job is nowhere nearly as important as a surgeon or a doctor, but it’s the same in that you’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can go home at 5:00, but you’re still on.
Tell us something you or the team achieved last season that you’re especially proud of . . . and something you’d like to see changed in the season ahead.
We stabilized the program. We kept it relevant nationally. It could have taken a nosedive in the transition, but we stayed at a high level: 24 wins, played in the postseason. Obviously, the one thing I’d like to change is to get to the NCAA tournament. That’s what this city wants. It’s not easy to do, but we’re going to give it our best shot every year to do that.
You have a relentlessly positive vibe. Is there any development that would make you “go negative”?
No. Fundamentally, I’m a positive guy by nature. I’m always looking at the glass as over-flowing. I wear loose-fit clothing, I don’t micromanage things, I understand people. I appreciate the positives and negatives with the job. When things don’t go well, and people criticize you on the radio, I appreciate that, because people care. They should; they’re emotionally invested. This job is a gift, and at any split second it could be taken away. I’m making sure that when I’m 65, I’m not looking back wondering why I didn’t enjoy it more back then.
Do you see the positive vibe rubbing off on your players?
I believe so. I want the city to be proud of our program, on and off the floor. Not everyone is going to smile and be happy all the time. I’m going to be upset with them at times, if they’re not playing the way I want them to play. But if you’re in a frustrating spot, you don’t sit, sulk, and dwell. You pick yourself up and have a good attitude about things.
You’ve welcomed one of the top recruiting classes in the country. But an all-star team doesn’t necessarily play well as a unit. What are you emphasizing as you identify where your star freshmen fit on the roster?
That’s the hard part. A lot of these guys haven’t scored a single point or grabbed a single rebound in college basketball. It’s going to take some time. Chemistry can be thrown around very loosely. Player management, player relationships, recovering from mistakes, executing directions, accepting challenges. Everyone can have chemistry when you win, and things are going your way. Chemistry is really defined when you hit a rough patch.
Have the freshmen been reading their headlines?
It would be very natural for them to. But I remind them every day that no one cares about what they did in high school. I could say I played for a national championship team in 1997 . . . but no one cares. I don’t even bring it up anymore. It’s over. Move on to the next thing. Focus on today. You’re only as good as your last possession.
There were games last year when you had (at most) a seven-man rotation. That won’t be a problem this season, will it?
We’re able to practice much more competitively, and I believe competition breeds excellence. Last year, our practices were like those for a late-season NBA team: no contact. We just didn’t have the bodies. We had just enough to get through the games. This year, we can push a little harder. But I’m a big believer in staying mentally and physically fresh.
Some guys aren’t going to be happy with their playing time, and that’s an issue we didn’t have to deal with last year. But it’s always better [as a coach] when you have choices.
How have your returning starters — Wesley Witherspoon and Will Coleman — adapted to all the attention their new teammates are getting?
They’re good character guys. I love being around them. The freshmen have taken to them.
What do you expect, in terms of improvement, from Witherspoon and Coleman?
Last year, they were both good toward the second half of the season. This year, we’re counting on them being good from the beginning. They have to produce.
What kind of difference will a healthy Angel Garcia make?
This is the first year since he’s been in college that he’s been able to practice full time. Knock on wood that he stays healthy. He’s maybe a freshman-and-a-half now. Last year, he didn’t practice; just played in games.
He has the green light to shoot the ball, but he has to be an inside-out guy. And it’s been a bit of a struggle. I want him on the block; he can score from the block, and get fouled. When he’s on the outside, it takes him away from rebounding position.
With Coleman, Black, and Garcia, you’ve got a bigger team this year, a step in the right direction.
Yes, we’re long and athletic. We can play different match-ups. We can go smaller, or bigger. It’s on us. If we do what we need to do — regardless of the opponent — we’ll be okay.
Have you been surprised — pleasantly or otherwise — by anything you’ve seen in the preseason?
I’m proud of the young guys; they’ve picked up on some things. They’re doing a good job academically, a good job socially. On a scale of one to five — total chemistry — I think we’re about a 2.5. But if we were at a five right now, I’d be a little concerned. That’s not normal.
The big names on your schedule are LSU, Miami, Kansas, Tennessee, Georgetown, and Gonzaga. But only two of these games (Miami and Georgetown) will be played at FedExForum. Is there a method to this kind of scheduling?
I know everyone wants to have all six of those games at home. I would, too, if I was a fan. You’ve got to remember that you have to return [to an opponent’s arena]. Not everyone wants to play home-and-home with Memphis. We have a tough schedule, but I also want to schedule smart. Our conference is underrated, with good coaches and good players. [Conference USA] is recruiting the best of any non-power-six league in the country.
Have you spoken much with football coach Larry Porter this fall? He’s facing a different kind of challenge than you did upon being hired.
I’m a big football fan. I think Coach Porter is going to do great things here. I stay in touch with him during the season, though I know he’s focused and busy. Football is much different than basketball. In basketball, you can sign one or two players, bring them in, and turn the program around. Football, it’s 11 on each side of the ball. I would think it takes four to six years to really see the dividends of the recruiting classes. It’s going to take some time, and he’ll build on some of the things Coach [Tommy] West did, taking them to bowl games.