The specter of John Calipari hangs over much of college basketball. The game's dominant recruiting and social media force has redefined what's possible in terms of program building. This season's Wildcats, nowhere near as talented as last season's batch, were picked No. 4 in the preseason polls, which speaks to the now almost universal buy-in on Calipari's model. Many now assume he will annually be able to develop a cohesive team and lead them toward the Final Four.
Calipari's grand experiment, though, didn't begin in Lexington. It started in Memphis, where Calipari built the program through Dajuan Wagner and Darius Washington Jr. and Chris Douglas-Roberts and finally Derrick Rose. Calipari went 138-14 in his final four seasons with the Tigers, winning 13 NCAA tournament games at a program that had won one in the decade before that. He left, Memphis hasn't won an NCAA game since, and his shadow continues to loom over the program.
Memphis coach Josh Pastner understands the current perception. Forget national media critique; Pastner hears about the so-called dropoff plenty from the locals who are as passionate about their basketball program as just about any fan base in America. In fact, Pastner all but expected this as he sat on Memphis' bench with Calipari for the 2008-09 season.
"People would ask me what it was like working for [Calipari] and I said, 'The guy who follows him will be a nut job,' Pastner said last week. "As it turns out, he goes to Kentucky. I was going to Kentucky with him. Everybody turned the job down. Nobody wanted to follow Cal. I ended up being the nut job who followed Cal, so I ended up eating my own words."
Now in his fourth year in charge, the 35-year-old Pastner has experienced both the good and bad of following the man who went on to re-elevate Kentucky to superpower status. Rather than immediately try to shape the program in his own image, he embraced the momentum Calipari had created. That helped lead to a surprising 24 wins in his first season and the arrival of an elite recruiting class in 2010. The influx of talent has continued from that point, with three top-30ish recruits committed to the Tigers for next season.
With the early success, though, came a return of heavy (and, so far, unmet) expectations. Memphis won an additional 51 games in the past two seasons but twice lost in the NCAA tournament's Round of 64. That's fueled feelings that the program isn't delivering, even though Memphis is winning at a level comparable to any time in its history other than Calipari's peak. The truth is that, just like practically every other coach besides Calipari, Pastner couldn't truly win big without experience in his rotation.
"I've told everyone that the second and third year were going to be the two hardest years to try to get the program back," Pastner said. "... We didn't have any upperclassmen. We brought a whole new team in and we're trying to teach the culture, the understanding. It was going to take some time. We didn't have that upperclassman culture to help guide the young guys."
While the one-win improvement last season from 2010-11 may not hint at it, the Tigers actually were significantly better last season, even while losing heralded freshman Adonis Thomas in January, essentially for the rest of the season. Statistically, Memphis was one of the nation's unluckiest teams. Their performance on both ends of the court belied their record, which was sullied by some early-season setbacks and three Conference USA losses by a total of six points.
Hardened by that experience, the belief from Pastner and players is that their growth together -- Pastner as a game-coach and the players in maturity and understanding what the staff wants on a consistent basis -- will lead to a leap back to prominence this year.
"When we came in, we had a big-time freshmen class, but the older guys weren't here. That's what was missing," said junior center Tarik Black." There were three guys who were older, two were in the rotation. ... Now, the older guys are the ones who are in the rotation and the younger guys are taking notes and learning, so it's a different situation."
With the culture at the program now more fully established, expectations of more consistent, mature performances follow. While the NCAA tournament has evolved into the ultimate proving ground for legitimacy, the groundwork for a successful March is laid in November and December. Last season was a frustrating reinforcement of that. The Tigers received a harsh 8-seed -- and an even harsher first-game pairing with Rick Majerus' disciplined (and also underseeded ) Saint Louis Billikens. Memphis led by eight with eight minutes left, but couldn't close the deal.
The quest for a better NCAA seed begins this weekend in The Bahamas, where Memphis is part of the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis and will play VCU, then Duke or Minnesota, and then another quality foe. Pastner and his players all fully understand what's at stake in the Caribbean. The transition from Calipari is basically complete. It's time for this coach and these players to start carving their own identity, to start winning the types of games his predecessor eventually made commonplace -- both now and in March.
"I'm proud of what we've done, but I'm also a realist," Pastner said. "I'm a down-to-earth guy, I get it, man. We need to win some of these nonconference games, these high-profile games. We need to make a run in the tournament. I understand that. I'm not immune to that. I respect that. I want us to do it."