RALEIGH, N.C. — Late in Friday night’s NCAA tournament game against George Washington, Memphis Coach Josh Pastner made a move.
The Colonials were coming back, trimming a 10-point second-half deficit to two, so Pastner called a timeout. He sent backup guard Michael Dixon into the lineup and drew up a play for him. Sure enough, Dixon made a three-pointer with 2 minutes 17 seconds to play. It was the right decision at the right time, and the Tigers eventually clinched a 71-66 win.
“The play worked,” Memphis’s youthful coach said a day later.
In his four seasons leading the Tigers, Pastner — whose eighth-seeded team will play top-seeded Virginia on Sunday night in the round of 32 — has yet to silence those who criticize his coaching decisions and in-game moves. Just 36 years old, he is an elite recruiter and a coach who seems to understand his community’s passion for Tigers basketball yet has been unable to defeat the notion he’s just not that good of a game-day coach.
Pastner indicated Saturday that he believes top-shelf players don’t require the same level of hands-on instruction and a team filled with blue-chip athletes can live without a coach who’s a mastermind with a whiteboard.
“I’m a better coach today than I was from Year One,” he said during a media session at PNC Arena. “But I also understand having really good players, and players have got to make plays.”
Pastner has brought no shortage of star power to Memphis, hauling in two top-five recruiting classes since taking over for the departed John Calipari in 2009. Those five-star players have yet to win big, though, and until a win over Oklahoma State in December, his teams were 0-11 against top 25 opponents. Pastner has led Memphis to the NCAA tournament in four of his five seasons, but he has yet to advance past the opening weekend.
“Coach Calipari went Elite Eight, Elite Eight, national championship [game], Sweet 16,” Pastner said, recounting his predecessor’s final four seasons as the Tigers’ coach. “In Memphis, that’s what I’m compared to is those four years because that’s who I’m following.
“That’s why I got the job because nobody wanted to follow him.”
Pastner also got the job because he’s a basketball prodigy. He took his first head coaching job, for a Houston-area AAU team, at age 16. He sent scouting reports to big-name college coaches and won a national championship as a walk-on guard while playing for — and learning from — Lute Olson at Arizona.
Pastner developed a positive, enthusiastic attitude during these years, and Olson hired him to be the Wildcats’ video and recruiting coordinator. Barely in his 30s, he joined Calipari in Memphis in 2008, and at age 31, he was a head coach.
“I tried to build on the momentum that’s going,” he said of taking over for Calipari. “There is no manual when you become a head coach. You get better. You learn. You improve daily.”
Even now, he plays down the value of coaching as it is traditionally defined because recruits don’t seem to place value on it. Prospects don’t ask him who actually ran drills and instructed former Memphis stars Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans; they just want to know that they played for the Tigers. “No one asked me if I coached them,” Pastner said.
And so about that late timeout and substitution Friday evening: Which was it that deflated the Colonials? Was it the coach who recognized a change was necessary and identified the right player to attempt an important shot, or was it that Dixon, a senior, simply made the most of a big opportunity?
There’s no doubt what Pastner thinks: “It looked like I knew what I was doing,” he said, “because he made the shot.”
Sunday’s contest will end few debates, including whether Pastner is an elite coach or whether it’s coaching philosophy or a collection of star players that wins NCAA tournament games. But if Memphis somehow upsets the Cavaliers, at least it will prove that the young coach — no matter how he does it — knows how to win.
“I’ve got a long way to go to continue to improve. I recognize that,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes through my time, and I’m sure I’ll make many more — and hope to continue to get better.”