After last Saturday's home loss to Tulane, it's safe to say Memphis is having its worst season of Josh Pastner's six-year tenure. The Tigers are 8-5 and ranked 91st in adjusted efficiency, hobbled by a turnover-prone, borderline unwatchable offense. How could it possibly get worse? I'm glad you asked!
On Wednesday, the Tigers announced that sophomore forward Kuran Iverson had been suspended for two games for a violation of team rules. Normally, this kind of announcement would go by without much fanfare. But that was before Iverson took to Twitter to express his displeasure.
First, Iverson favorited a tweet from someone named Curtis DuBose, which was subsequently folded into Iverson's timeline (Twitter is tricky these days). It read: "Josh Pastner is a fraud of a coach and uses players as scape goats due to his lack of coaching ability. Stop the fraud." Later, when someone asked what Iverson did to get suspended, he responded "smiling too hard coach couldn't take it." Former Tiger Wesley Witherspoon posted his own all-caps tweet about being the scapegoat during his time at Memphis: "FOUND ANOTHER SCAPEGOAT HUH SUCKS FOR YOUNG KURAN I LIVED THAT LIFE FOR A YEAR AND A HALF." (Lest you think Witherspoon was fired up about this topic specifically, know that he always posts in all-caps. WESLEY, STOP SHOUTING AT US.) That tweet was also deleted, but too late: The Internet pile-on had begun.
These are the subtweets of malcontents, to be sure: Iverson has earned a reputation for disrespect during his Tigers career, one Witherspoon shared from 2009 to 2012. Pastner has resolutely disciplined players for not upholding his own standards for attitude and conduct; few would question the coach on that front. Reports indicate that Iverson is likely done with the team altogether, though no official announcement has yet been made.
Still, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal's Geoff Calkins seemed to sum up the feelings of much of the Tigers fan base Wednesday (subscription required) when he wrote that although Iverson surely deserved to be suspended, the larger theme of talented players not making good on their skills during their Memphis careers is nonetheless a valid criticism:
1) Pastner recruits talented player to Memphis. 2) For whatever reason, talented player has a disappointing end. 3) Talented player transfers (Tarik Black) or drops to the second round (Will Barton) or isn’t drafted at all (Adonis Thomas, Joe Jackson) or you get the general idea. So, no, this isn’t about Iverson, per se. This is about a trend. That’s why the tweets resonated the way they did Wednesday. It was about the message, not the messenger.
Calkins even goes so far as to write that "at least half the people reading this column agree with [the] sentiment" of the tweet Iverson fav'd, if not its wording. If the comments under Calkins' column are any indication, he's right.
Still, it's important to separate the symptoms from the disease. There is no mistaking the deep sense of dissatisfaction with Pastner in Memphis. Fans are at once rooting for someone they universally admire on a personal level but distrust as a professional. Two seasons ago, after Memphis suffered yet another nonconference letdown, the same questions -- Can Pastner coach? Can he bring a team of players together? Can he win in the tournament? -- surfaced.
There are a variety of factors working against the coach here, from the success of his predecessor (John Calipari) to the emphasis on a random single-elimination competition to the obsessive intensity of a unique metropolitan fan base. Until they get back to the Final Four, Memphis fans will recycle these questions in perpetuity.
To date, Pastner has been just good enough to glide past them. But all it ever takes is one truly down season -- plus a few dumb tweets -- to trigger the whole mess anew. It's a precarious position for any coach to find himself in.