TULSA, Okla. (AP)—In his only year as an assistant at Memphis, Josh Pastner formed an opinion on what kind of coach it would take to replace John Calipari.
“I used to say the guy that follows him is crazy,” Pastner said. “How are you going to follow this guy?”
Calipari guided the Tigers to 13 NCAA tournament wins over a four-year span, brought in NBA lottery picks Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, and played a huge role in the team’s astounding 64-game winning streak in Conference USA play.
No easy act to follow. So naturally, Pastner ended up being the “fool” who followed him and is now turning it into his own dream come true.
Pastner has the 12th-seeded Tigers (25-9) back in the NCAA tournament after a one-year hiatus, with hardly any remnants from the Calipari era left behind. Wesley Witherspoon is the only player who was around from Memphis’ last trip to the tournament two years ago and half the roster, and an even bigger portion of the playing rotation, is made up of freshmen.
In a classic twist of NCAA tournament fate—or perhaps some clever bracket engineering—Pastner will make his postseason coaching debut Friday against his alma mater, No. 5 seed Arizona (27-7).
Pastner was a bit player on the Arizona team that won the 1997 national title and spent a dozen years as a player, staff member and assistant under Lute Olson, the architect of the Wildcats’ 25 straight NCAA tournament appearances that ended last year.
“I know people tried to make the story line of … me against Arizona. It would be different if Coach Olson was still coaching,” Pastner said. “But once the ball’s tipped, it’s about the team that wins advances and the other one’s done.”
For two schools steeped in tradition, it’s a time to build on new foundations after a big-name coach left.
The 33-year-old Pastner is the youngest coach in the 68-team field, and his team is the youngest, too. And after missing not only the NCAAs but the NIT last year, Arizona seems to be finding its footing around second-year coach Sean Miller and Pac-10 player of the year Derrick Williams.
Miller replaced Russ Pennell, who took over on an interim basis after Olson suddenly resigned before the 2008-09 season. Before that, Kevin O’Neill led the Wildcats during a leave of absence by Olson.
“Being the fourth coach in four years at Arizona, I don’t think people completely understand how hard that is. It’s particularly hard on the players,” Miller said. “That consistency and continuity that they’ve experienced over the last 24 months has helped them grow and helped our team grow.”
Miller said it’s the Wildcats’ charge to continue the success and the family atmosphere that Olson created while taking the team to four Final Fours and the second-longest streak of NCAA tournament appearances in history.
“Embracing everything that’s gone on here in the past is the starting point for our program moving forward,” Miller said. “That tradition is something that’s neverending. … To honor the past is something that’s very easy to do, and as the coach the way you do the best job you can moving forward, is to be yourself.”
Witherspoon can certainly relate to that at Memphis. He played as a reserve for Calipari in all three of the Tigers’ games in the 2009 NCAA tournament, and has now adjusted to Pastner.
“They’re just two totally different coaches. They’re on two different ends of the spectrum,” Witherspoon said. “The way they coach and the way they are is just totally different.
“Coach Cal’s choice of words are a lot different than coach Pastner’s,” he added.
His deeds are unique, too. Pastner is enough of a disciplinarian that he dismissed McDonald’s All-American Jelan Kendrick when the season was just getting started, and yet he also let his players throw him into a pool during a preseason trip to the Bahamas and penciled in time for karaoke after the Tigers landed in Tulsa.
“He knows how to have a good time,” senior Will Coleman said. “But at the same time, he knows when it’s time to get serious, when it’s time to play, when it’s time to go to work.”