An offseason brings questions, and for the 2015-16 Memphis Tigers the questions are big ("yuuuuge," a certain Donald might say). Josh Pastner's seventh team applied a bit of lipstick to a pig of a season with a run to the American Athletic Conference championship game last weekend. But in coming up short against UConn, the Tigers (19-15) will be filling out brackets like millions of other fans this week instead of analyzing an opponent (and potential opponents) in the NCAA tournament.
A few questions that need answering by November:
• How did the Tiger program fall so far?
After his team's win over UCF on February 17th, Pastner went in an interesting direction with his postgame comments. The win over the Knights had improved the Tigers' record to 15-11. Said the coach, "Besides the Ole Miss game at home — and we had an hour-and-a-half black-out [before tipoff] — and the game against UConn at home, the other nine losses . . . we should have won the game probably. We had chances to win in the last two minutes of the game. We should have won the games. Even if we had won six of the nine, it would be a different deal. We've blown a lot of games. We haven't gotten some breaks, whether it's injuries or the ball hasn't bounced our way, the whistle hasn't gone our way. Basketball is a make-and-miss game. You gotta be really good defensively, and we got away from that."
Pastner didn't mean the comments to be self-incriminating, but they encapsulate the view held by most of his critics. He's not helping the Memphis program win games. Coaches have little, if anything, to do with blowouts (wins or losses). Talent disparity will turn some games ugly every season. But the close games, those decided in the final minutes . . . these are the moments a coach makes himself valuable, the moments where he stabilizes his team and secures his job standing. Recruiting and development will determine a team's talent level. But there will always be close games, and a coach has to help win them. If the Tigers lost nine games (at least) this season they should have won, their coach is a primary culprit.
• Did the Tigers' run in the AAC tourney help Pastner's job status?
The wins last weekend were the most fun the Tigers (and their fans) had this season. But it's hard to imagine a pair of March wins — over Tulsa and Tulane — in a near-empty arena in Orlando helping to fill FedExForum next November. Memphis finally did have some breaks: 1) No SMU in the field, 2) Opposite side of the bracket from UConn and Cincinnati, 3) Tulane's quarterfinal upset of Houston. And they took advantage for a pair of blowout victories. But back to the previous question: Coaches have little to do with blowouts. I don't see Pastner's Q rating getting a bump.
• Will Dedric Lawson be back for a second season?
Having been wrong so often, I've quit forecasting a star underclassman's return to the Memphis program. There have been young Tigers needing more college development who have still left after one or two seasons: Darius Washington, Elliot Williams, Will Barton, Adonis Thomas. Whatever the mock drafts might say (and none have Lawson going in the first round this year), whatever our eyes might tell us about a player's shortcomings, the mighty dollar is the loudest and most consistent influence on a player's decision to stay in college or declare for the draft.
I'd like to think family sentiment might keep the talented Lawson in a Tiger uniform. Would he like a full season playing with his older brother, K.J.? (K.J. was redshirted after suffering an early-season foot injury.) Would he like to play another year under his dad's watch? (Keelon Lawson completed his second season as an assistant on Pastner's staff.) Dedric's decision will come down to Keelon's view of his son's value (or future value) for an NBA team. Only one scout or GM needs to suggest Lawson is a pro for him to take the leap. And I think that's what will happen.
• Is there anything positive to Pastner remaining head coach at Memphis?
This, of course, is the $10.6 million question. It's hard to imagine Josh Pastner wanting
to stay in a place where a fan base and, yes, media have turned so sour on his job performance. To date, he's spoken (publicly) as though he intends to be back for an eighth season, to welcome Charlie Moore and Jimario Rivers to a roster that will require much more to make next season an improvement over the last two. You could say he has 10.6 million reasons to make this his public stance. That buyout clause hinges on Pastner being fired
And $10.6 million is a lot of money to pay someone not to work for you. That's the only positive I see in a scenario that has Pastner back on the bench for the U of M. The athletic department at the university will spare itself the embarrassment of the worst contract in college basketball history blowing up in the lobby.
An announcement will be made soon, one way or the other. And there will be angry Memphis Tiger fans, either way. This is one definition of misery. Sad but true, 19-15 seasons are beneath the standard for the University of Memphis. For now, be grateful for one season with the sublime Dedric Lawson and four with Shaq Goodwin. And take comfort knowing football season is less than six months away.