Pastner’s Philosophy Fails Statistical Examination

20 years ago, I had a statistics teacher at White Station High School named Mr. Isom. He was an excellent teacher. Funny, informative, kind. I haven’t seen him since, but if he ends up reading this article I think he’s going to really like it.

In his post game press conference yesterday after Memphis dropped a 73-55 contest to Tulsa; Josh Pastner acknowledged that Memphis never got into a rhythm, had too many turnovers, was the slower team and was handicapped by a prolonged scoring drought. Everyone who watched the game can agree on all those points.

The next questions become why does the team have these problems and what can be done about them? It’s not that losing to a good Tulsa team on the road is unacceptable, but why was your team blitzed so badly that they found themselves down 28 in the 2nd half? Why can’t Memphis even be competitive in certain games against teams with equal, or arguably lesser, talent?

For his part, Pastner acknowledged that everyone, including himself, needs to do a better job. He then turned around and attributed the struggles to the fact that this is a young team. Pastner didn’t get into specifically what he could have done better, though he did mention maybe the “approach” could have been different.

You can watch the full video here if you’re so inclined.

I think Pastner is wrong, to a degree.

I think the problem is his overall philosophy on playing time.

Let me explain.

Let me explain, using basic statistics taught to me 20 years ago by Mr. Isom.

Pastner, before the Tulsa game, gave a very revealing quote regarding his philosophy and personal feelings on distribution of playing time:

“The game on Saturday (vs. UCF) I was able to play everybody, that’s always nice. I think with our team, as I’ve said…. it’s its own journey each game, its own entity each game. And uh….there could be a different 7 or 8 guys getting the most minutes game by game. Versus Tulsa we could have a group of 5 we could find that you (would least) maybe not expect that could play the entire 2nd half – as I’ve done before. Through time, through each game we find that combination and kind of just roll with it.”


“Guys that are playing well are going to get the time. Guys not playing well, we’ve got some other guys. Everyone’s interchangeable, everyone’s rooting for each other. Just find that mix or group of guys — whoever it may be on that day to get the job done.”

Pastner gets paid $2.65m per year to figure this stuff out, and I’m just some random guy with a blog – so take my opinion for what it’s worth.

I don’t think an elite program can be built around this philosophy. I’ve played organized basketball – I use the term ‘organized’ loosely but there were refs and a scoreboard. Anyway, in an organized, 40 minute basketball game – to be successful – a team needs about 7 or 8 guys, barring injury.

As you can see from his comments, Pastner acknowledges that 7 or 8 guys are going to get the bulk of the minutes at some point in the game, but there’s a two-fold problem with this approach:

(1) it requires playing all 11 early in the game – to figure out which 8 are going to get the most minutes later on (which defeats the point and is really somewhat arbitrary), and

(2) if nobody is playing well, how do you then decide who to roll with?

This problem reared its head against Tulsa – and the consequences were severe. Memphis played 11 guys more than 5 minutes against Tulsa and found themselves down almost 30 with 10 minutes to play. In other words, the decision never got made – and Pastner essentially had an 11 man rotation.

11 is simply too many guys to play extended minutes in a competitive game.

The statistics from across the country clearly back me up on this.

This is the part that Mr. Isom will probably love.

To figure out what successful teams in the country are doing with respect to their rotations, I examined box scores of top 25 teams from this past weekend and up through last night (Wednesday 1/21). I tried to find competitive games so I disregarded those where the margin was greater than 10 at half or whose final margin was above 20. I was able to examine 13 competitive games during that time period involving top 25 teams.

None of the ranked teams I examined played as many guys at least 5 minutes as Memphis did against Tulsa (11).

Here is the list of Top 25 teams and the number of players that played over 5 minutes in their team’s last reasonably competitive game:

Memphis – 11

Kentucky – 10

Kansas – 10

North Carolina – 9

Virginia – 9

Louisville – 9

Villanova – 8

Duke – 8

Northern Iowa – 8

Baylor – 8

Iowa State – 8

Wyoming – 8 (Even in a 3 OT game)

Notre Dame – 7

Dayton – 7

Because of Mr. Isom’s influence, I actually remembered how to calculate the mean, median and mode of the above data set. This is basic stuff, but it felt good to put that knowledge to use. If you’re curious as to what those terms refer to, at the end of this post I’ve copied a very cheesy video explaining the concept. It (the video) involves toads and worm with an Italian (?) accent.


The mean is 8.38 

The median is 8

The mode is 8

Therefore my theory, that it takes about 8 guys to be successful in basketball, seems to be backed up by the evidence.

Pastner is sticking with 11. And his theory that he can somehow identify the right 8 over the course of the early part of the game and then roll with those guys. I think that’s crazy, and I think it’s probably fueled by his desire to keep everyone happy – because he’s such a nice guy. See the above quote about how it was “nice” to play all the guys against UCF? I think he genuinely means that. I think it makes him feel good. But I think his nice guy tendencies are clearly getting the best of him here and costing his team and some of his players the opportunity to develop.

I could get into why I think (and apparently all the other successful college coaches think) that 8 is a better number than 11 and all of the ramifications thereof. It involves recruiting philosophy, roles, transfers, guys sitting on the bench, NBA aspirations, etc….but now’s not the time for that. Now is the time to let the statistics speak for themselves.

Thanks, Mr. Isom.