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Our Man for All Seasons

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If you want to know something about Josh Pastner's coolness in adversity, just ask the members of the Memphis Rotary Club, who have been an audience for the University of Memphis basketball coach on two separate mid-summer occasions when the air conditioning system at the host venue decided to malfunction.

Such was the case on Tuesday at the University Club, and, by the time Pastner, a self-described "gatekeeper" for Tiger fans, got well under way in a preview of the team's prospects, the weather outside, bordering on 100 degrees, had ceased to be a major preoccupation.

Pastner said his team was "the most unique thing in college athletics," a unit whose grip on its home city could only be compared to that of the NFL's Green Bay Packers, a civically owned franchise. He brought the good news that, attendance-wise, the Tigers had ranked in the Top 10 nationally for the last 10 years. And he noted that the U of M's legendary cage rivalry with Louisville would be renewed this year and next, on a home-and-home basis.

Somewhat unsettled that the Tigers, winners of the C-USA post-season tournament, were relegated to 12-seed status in this year's NCAA tournament, on the basis of a relatively weak non-conference schedule, Pastner pointed out that he ramped up the schedule for this year. Among the nonconference teams on tap, besides Louisville, are Georgetown, Xavier, and Belmont, and there was the expectation of encountering real powerhouses like Duke, UCA, Kansas, and in-state rival UT in the Maui Classic tournament in November. That should fix any lingering worries about an anemic R.P.I.

The dedicated, young third-year coach — who famously doesn't drink, smoke, or even drink coffee and sleeps practically not at all — was frank about owning up to some of the problems he encountered early in last year's season, some of them relating to his own coaching. He acknowledged having difficulty in training his charges, most of them fresh from high school heroics, to grasp the team ethic and confessed that he had taken too long in divining the optimum role for several players.

But Pastner didn't need to add that the story of last year's team had a satisfyingly happy ending, concluding with a barn-burner cliffhanger loss in the NCAA to number-one seed Arizona (his alma mater).

He was asked: How does the rise of the Grizzlies impact the Tigers' fan base? No jealousy or looking over his shoulder at those upstart grit-and-grind wonders. It was all positive, he said. The newly gained prominence of the city's NBA team had become a bonanza of a recruiting tool for Tiger prospects. And he said he had long had the habit of taking his players to visit Grizzlies practices so they can get a sense of what lies ahead for them if they apply themselves in the college ranks.

Oh, and Pastner said that in his efforts to upgrade the Tigers' schedule, he hopes fairly soon to be able to match his team against that of a certain coach now plying his trade at the University of Kentucky.

That is a consummation devoutly to be wished!

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