Needless to say, the Memphis Tigers did not begin yet another promising season the way anyone, least of all their fourth-year head coach, would have wanted.
After early-season tuneups against North Florida and Samford, the then-No. 19-ranked Tigers embarked on their trip to the Bahamas to face a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field, where challenges and opportunities awaited. Then Memphis lost -- and looked lost -- in its first-round game to VCU, then followed that up by allowing Minnesota guard (and Memphis native) Andre Hollins to drop 41 points on a hyperefficient 12-of-16 from the field and 5-of-5 from beyond the arc.
For Memphis fans, this was reminiscent of last season's trip to Maui, when Memphis fell to Michigan, barely got by Tennessee and lost to Georgetown. After losses in the rest of its quality nonconference games, Memphis was the best team in Conference USA and thoroughly underrated on a per-possession basis nationally. Because the tournament selection committee cares less about reality-based analytics and more about the godforsaken RPI, the Tigers got a No. 8 seed, which stuck them in a brutal first-round matchup with Saint Louis, and so Josh Pastner became just one more coach who could look back one day and say he remembered the time Rick Majerus took him to church.
Which, after another disappointing start to the season, and another perilous nonconference scenario -- Louisville and Tennessee are the only remaining marquee games left -- is really what this all comes down to: Can Josh Pastner coach?
That is the question they are asking in Memphis, as another team of highly touted stars, many of them local products, is flailing once again. Memphis Commercial-Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins summed up the conversation extremely well this weekend:
A Memphis basketball fan texted me Sunday, asked me to "be nice."
"Why?" I texted back.
"I want the good guy to win," she said.
And that about sums it up, doesn't it?
Everyone wants the good guy to win. I want the good guy to win. But after three-plus years in Memphis, the good guy still has no answer for the question people are asking with increasing frequency: Where's the evidence he can coach?
As Calkins continues, it's not about the standard coaching question of X's and O's, which is what a lot of people seem to think you mean when you ask whether a guy can coach. That's not the right question. The question is whether Pastner can bring a team of players together -- whether highly touted or underrated or merely mediocre -- and get those players to buy in, to trust him and each other, to play their hardest on every possession, to do all the things that make the best teams the best for a reason.
To date, it is not unfair to argue that case. It is also not unfair, as those intense Memphis fans often have, to argue that the very likable Pastner is essentially little more than a recruiting coordinator who has been putting together great teams since he was a teenager running an AAU program out of Houston.
I would like to make a counterargument. Pastner is not the first coach to get a lesson or two from Majerus. But let's not forget that, in 2011, with a much less efficient team, Memphis lost by two -- 77-75 -- to the same Arizona team that featured top-two pick Derrick Williams and a team that completely blitzed Duke in the Sweet 16 and lost out on a Final Four by a two-point margin (see: Walker, Kemba).
We forget these things. It is much easier to say that Pastner has never won an NCAA tournament game. That's true, sure, but if one or two plays went right in either of the past two seasons -- or maybe the Tigers didn't get hit with that tough No. 8 seed last season -- Pastner would have an NCAA tournament win or two or three, maybe, and the most obvious bludgeon against his tenure would be rendered dull.
I'd say, sure, there is evidence Pastner can coach. Recruiting is part of coaching! So is getting to the NCAA tournament. These have not always been givens at Memphis, although they seem to be considered so locally.
But Pastner can't make this case. He also can't urge patience to a fan base that desperately wants to see its talented kids take a shot at a national title. So he marches on, trying to get a clearly frustrated and not-entirely-cohesive group of stars to play and win together. If that doesn't happen, the questions -- both fair and unfair -- will only get louder.