Summer just got here, but everybody looks ahead these days, and it wasn't much of a surprise to see University of Memphis Basketball Coach Josh Pastner turn up at a Memphis Rotary Club luncheon on Tuesday to offer some
backward glances — and forward guesses regarding the forthcoming version of the Tiger roundballers.
What was a surprise of sort was Pastner's own new look. Working with the UM athletic department's strength coach, he has packed some new bulk onto a frame that always looked small in those TV shots of him standing by his players. When club president Berje Yacoubian confessed to a sense of surprise about the Tiger coach's new dimensions, Pastner aw-shucksed it off as what happens when folks are used to seeing you surrounded by athletes who stand 6'10" or so.
In any case, the newly configured Pastner, 6'1" himself, and weighing some 210 pounds, looks like an NFL linebacker. And that may be what T.S. Eliot called an "objective correlative" of some other changes going on in Tigerland. Pastner told the Rotarians that during the spring and summer, he has doubled down on discipline for his players.
Pastner has always been willing to bench a player for substandard performance (or even to suspend one for improper attitude, like audibly cursing on the floor). But now he's adopting a tactic that any military veteran might remember from boot camp. When one player makes an avoidable error, he will no longer be disciplined as one errant individual: The entire unit will undergo some sort of corrective discipline. That's how a drill instructor molds a team, and that's how Pastner intends to do it from now on.
He confessed to being as conscious as the rest of us that the Tigers have a history, under his regime and previous ones, of falling just short. "We haven't yet won a national championship," Pastner observed, telling the Rotarians that something like that is what it may take for the team — and the school — to hold its own in the next inevitable reshuffling of athletic conferences.
Two things that separate winners from losers these days, Pastner confided, are the ability to hit the three-point shot and the ability to make free throws. (Anyone who remembers that agonizing 2008 loss to Kansas in the NCAA finals needs no reminder of that.)
But the most important revelation that came from Pastner on Tuesday was probably a surprise to most who heard it: The team is already a champion in the academic prowess of its players, as measured in grade-point-average and percentage of degrees earned. The Top Four, nationally. He and they deserve our congratulations.