This nice little 2-game win streak aside, fans of Tiger basketball have been doing a lot of hand wringing this year. Attendance is down. Angst is up. Obviously the almost exclusive subject of discussion is the head coach, Josh Pastner, and rightly so. The man has overseen a program that, objectively speaking, has taken a precipitous fall from the high of the John Calipari era. At his introductory press conference, Pastner stated a goal to have “no slippage,” but clearly his current program is more evocative of the Larry Finch or Tic Price era than of its immediate predecessor. Slippage indeed.
That said, it is still hard to pinpoint exactly what the problem is. As with most things, the answer isn’t simple.
The problem is obviously not a complete lack of talent. Multiple core rotation players were high 4-star recruits (Nick King, Shaq Goodwin, Austin Nichols), each of whom had multiple high major offers. Similarly, Kuran Iverson, Pookie Powell and Kedren Johnson were all top 100 players with multiple offers. Trashon Burrell was a highly thought of JUCO prospect. Other coaches and programs do more with less talent. Pastner has recruited well – this is not debatable.
The problem, contrary to what some believe, is also not a complete lack of coaching (x’s and o’s) ability. Pastner’s teams over the course of his first 5 years at Memphis, contrary to the popular narrative, have excelled at offensive execution – consistently ranking among the NCAA leaders in percentage of assists on made baskets. Furthermore, Pastner’s Memphis teams have won a multitude of close games and road conference games over the past 5 years – showing an ability to execute down the stretch in pressure situations. Though there were certainly times when Pastner was made to look silly by the likes of Rick Majerus, Tim Floyd, etc… the idea that he’s simply rolled out the basketballs to a group of elite athletes without any tactical expertise doesn’t match the facts.
What is the problem?
Before presenting a list of 4 factors that have contributed to the slippage – let’s pause to point out that there might NOT be a problem. As much as Memphis fans might not want to hear it, it’s possible that a 6-4 record heading towards conference play is simply where the Memphis program ought to be considering the fact they’re breaking in 10 new players and coming off of 4-consecutive NCAA tournaments. It’s possible that the NIT is a realistic goal every 4 or 5 years while retooling for (optimistically) another set of NCAA bound teams.
That being said, here is a list of 4 factors that have led to the slippage:
1. Teams assume the personality of their coach and in this instance that translates to lack of toughness in big games and lack of identity for the program.
Josh Pastner is a tremendous human being. The attributes that make him so are numerous: He is kind, relentlessly positive, consistent, principled, and values others needs above his own. The man returns literally every email sent to him. He is maniacal about routine and process, which leads him to respect and prepare similarly for every opponent. As a reflection of its coach, his players generally stay out of trouble, take care of their academic responsibilities and maintain a businesslike approach to the sport. This dedication to preparation, balance and consistency has resulted in a six-year stretch in which the Tigers have been on the wrong end of only a few surprising upsets (Rice, UTEP, SFA, ???).
On the other hand, this relentless insistence on treating every game the same has not worked at all in spotlight games. Pastner’s teams were embarrassed multiple times as he lost 13 consecutive games against ranked teams to start his career. Though they began to turn the tide last year against the likes of Louisville and Oklahoma State, big games this year have again been disastrous (Baylor, Wichita State, Oklahoma State). This has more to do with the philosophical and psychological approach to the games (including failure to trim the rotation), than it does any deficiency in tactical basketball related strategy. Though it’s childish to suggest that Pastner has to use foul language to be an effective motivator, it’s not unreasonable to point out that his teams routinely fail to rise to the occasion in big moments. That’s a motivational problem, and it’s on him.
2. Pastner’s teams lack floor leadership because he micromanages his players.
This is a corollary to the point above, and for proof one need look no further than the story of one Joe Jackson. Jackson was clearly frustrated with the fact that he was never turned loose at any point in his 4 year career. His minutes were always more limited than they should have been. He was pulled too quickly after mistakes. In a final insult and blow to his confidence, Mike Dixon was brought in before Jackson’s senior year, confusing and cluttering a promising back court situation. Jackson never complained publicly (other than while he was considering a transfer), but it was obvious that he was held back and he confirmed as much after graduation.
Flashcards, constant providing instruction from the bench, over utilization of substitutions – add it all up and it is obvious that Memphis players are over coached. The irony of this is it goes completely against the stereotype of the Memphis program, but it’s true. The only players that seemed to play with any kind of unrestrained passion during the last several years were DJ Stephens and Will Barton. The other great talents passing through the system since 2010- Adonis Thomas, Tarik Black, Austin Nichols, Shaq Goodwin- have been under utilized, poorly motivated and over-coached (from a scheme, not a skills, standpoint).
3. Pastner throws rosters together without adequate consideration for how the pieces fit together.
Pastner has spent his summers at Memphis making last minute additions to the roster (Kedren Johnson, Mike Dixon, Calvin Godfrey, David Pellom, etc.). Though Mike Dixon was a crucial factor in several wins down the stretch last year, it’s arguable that having an extra man in the back court destroyed team chemistry. Jackson regressed from what was an outstanding Junior year. Furthermore, the effect spilled into the 2014-15 year because the presence of 4 senior guards on the roster (combined with Pookie Powell’s failure to gain initial eligibility, and Markel Crawford’s redshirt) meant the program entered the current season with no experienced guards.
Likewise, Godfrey’s meltdown during the Oklahoma State game suggested maybe he wasn’t the ideal addition for a team already fairly deep in the front court. Team chemistry is important and Memphis has had very few players that seem to embrace the 10th, 11th, or 12th spot on the bench. Maybe most programs struggle with this, but Pastner gets paid 2.75m per year to avoid such problems.
4. Scheduling Malpractice
It was a scheduling crime to throw a team with 10 new players and no back court experience up against Wichita State to start the 2014-2015 season. The blame for this probably sits as much with Tom Bowen and Wren Baker, as I’m not sure Pastner had much say in committing to play the Shockers. It was also made clear that money was a driving factor in this game (the payoff funded the Canada trip). Good coaches and programs know how to build a schedule that suits the current roster while not ignoring RPI considerations. This program has rarely, if ever, seemed to get that task right. If ever there was a year for a schedule front end loaded with easy wins, this was it. Not that the schedule has been murderers row – but it could have been more specifically tweaked for the realities of this team. Again, Pastner clearly has less say in the schedule than his predecessor had, but the lack of scheduling savvy is clearly one of the factors in the program’s regression.
If one were to categorize these issues into a broad category, it could be said the problem is program management and player management. These are fixable issues, but they do start with the man in charge – the man who gets paid 2.75m per year to solve them. He’ll have time – but it will require an open-mindedness and willingness to change his approach in certain areas.