Wednesday November 18th, 2009

He was a creature of the '90s, college basketball's own sitcom character, a cross between Doogie Howser and Alex Keaton. To Josh Pastner, being an end-of-the-bench walk-on for Lute Olson at Arizona had little to do with late-game playing time, and everything to do with learning at the knee of a Hall of Fame coach.

Growing up outside Houston, Pastner began breaking down game tapes at age 12. A year later he had started a high school scouting service. By 14 he was running the Houston Hoops, the travel team he founded with his dad, Hal. The Hoops' girls program? Just another way to accelerate his learning curve.

Three top 25 programs offered Pastner assistant coaching positions out of high school. He opted for Tucson instead, logging 25 hours a week in the film room while completing his degree in two and a half years and winning an NCAA title. After eight formal seasons on the Wildcats staff he made the move to Memphis in 2008.

Then last night, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, he demonstrated yet again that precociousness, thy name is Pastner. During the nightcap of the Hall of Fame Showcase, taking the big stage on his own for the first time, he guided unranked and decimated Memphis to within a clanging three-pointer of taking out the nation's No. 1 team.

"You guys were great," Kansas video coordinator Kyle Keller told Pastner in the tunnel after the Jayhawks' 57-55 victory. "You took us out of everything."

In early April, Pastner, then 31, watched his professional life get rocked. After two seasons in which the Tigers won 71 of 77 games, coach John Calipari left for Kentucky and Pastner was set to go with him. "I'd packed up my office and my apartment and turned in my courtesy car," Pastner says.

Then Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson summoned Pastner to his office. Did he want the job?

If he was to be an assistant, Pastner said, he wanted to serve Calipari in Lexington.

No, Johnson clarified. The head job.

"I stepped outside and called coach Cal to get his blessing," Pastner says. "And I've been in survival mode ever since."

Four Tiger starters left for the pros in the aftermath of Calipari's departure. Then three recruits ticketed for Memphis re-routed themselves to the Bluegrass. That left Pastner with eight scholarship players.

But Pastner was smart. He turned to his hometown of Houston, hiring Rice coach Willis Wilson, 49, to be a wise head on the bench. Last night Wilson helped keep Pastner from wandering too far out of the coaching box, and helped draw up the game plan that somehow kept the Tigers, despite playing only seven players, in contact with a Kansas team that returns virtually everyone from last season's Big 12 champions.

Like the teenage Pastner, the Tigers had hung around and made themselves a nuisance, and now prepared to reap their reward. They were out of timeouts when guard Elliot Williams, the transfer from Duke, lined up that final three-pointer. But if he'd had a timeout, Pastner confessed, he probably wouldn't have used it.

Williams' three kicked off the back of the rim. "All you want is a chance to win," Pastner said. "He missed long, so I'm O.K. with it."

Of course. Pastner himself has never left any try short. And with a powerful major-college program finally his, he's not about to start. He already has commitments from Will Barton and Joe Jackson, a couple of highly ranked high school guards who'll ensure that Memphis remains the exemplar of the dribble-drive motion offense. But last night's performance indicates that no Memphis fan need fear that 2009-10 will be a lost season.

"I told the guys afterward that this game is like life, a long journey," Pastner said. But, he added, "I can tell you this for sure. If games are like this, I'm getting out at 35."

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