Last Thursday afternoon, some 400 miles from where John Calipari was getting ready to lead his jubilant Kentucky Wildcats to the No. 1 ranking, his former assistant back in Memphis, Josh Pastner, was huddling up Calipari's former players in an effort to lift the sorrow from their souls. Pastner's guys were disconsolate because the night before they had lost at home to UTEP, snapping their Conference USA winning streak at 64 games -- one tantalizing win shy of setting a new NCAA record.
The loss left the seniors in tears after the game, and when Pastner noticed them moping around in practice the next day, he brought them in for a pep talk.
"For crying out loud, there's no reason to be so depressed," said Pastner, who unlike Calipari and just about every other coach in America does not use profanity. "We just lost a game. Do I need to take you over to St. Jude's [Hospital]? No doctor called to say you're sick or that you're dying. We lost a game, that's all. Let's start another streak."
Such encouragement is to be expected from a boyish, teetotaling, 32-year-old Tony Robbins wannabe who concludes the message on his cell phone by saying, "Remember, positive belief is the foundation for all excellence." But it also speaks to the larger challenge Pastner faces in managing expectations. The life of the party is gone and he took all the pretty girls with him, but Pastner still must find ways to keep the music playing.
"When I took over, I went all over the city and told people, you can't judge me on what Coach Cal did the last four years," Pastner says. "It's not reality."
Making that challenge even greater was the way Memphis's top-ranked recruiting class disintegrated after Calipari left last spring. DeMarcus Cousins and Darnell Dodson, who had both committed to Memphis, followed Calipari to Kentucky, as did John Wall, who was on the verge of coming to Memphis. Xavier Henry had signed a letter of intent to play at Memphis, but when Calipari left, Memphis released Henry from his letter. Now he's at Kansas.
Several other players whom Pastner was counting on also became unavailable during the offseason. One went to the NBDL, another got injured and remained in his native France, and a transfer who was about to become eligible tore an ACL on the first day of practice. That has left Pastner with a group that has little height and less depth. In each of Memphis's five losses, the Tigers have been severely outrebounded. They are a good defensive team (ranked 13th in the nation in steals) and are making a lot more three-pointers than they have in the past, but what has pleased Pastner most is their effort. Memphis is unranked, but the Tigers still are 14-5 and have an excellent chance to make the NCAA tournament. "I'm so proud of our young men," Pastner says. "The guys who are here, they didn't sign up to play for Josh Pastner, they signed to play for John Calipari. But they've given everything they have."
The good news is there are a lot of very good players who want to play for Josh Pastner. In just his first year on the job, Pastner has landed the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, a seven-man tour de force that features three players from Memphis (most notably point guard Joe Jackson) and two other studs (wings Jelan Kendrick and Will Barton) who are ranked in the top 11 nationally by Rivals.com. That class brings a lot of badly-needed bodies, but more than anything it gives Pastner instant credibility.
Not surprisingly, he professes nothing but happiness for the success both his former boss and former recruits are enjoying in Lexington. "The way I look at it is, without Coach Calipari, I would never have been brought to Memphis and certainly would have never been the head coach at Memphis," Pastner says. "I hope that's us someday, I really do. But I know it's not going to happen overnight."
In the meantime, the Tigers demonstrated the power of positive belief by recovering from their dispiriting loss to pummel Houston at home on Saturday, 92-77. Let the record show the new streak stands at one.
• You see that guy Chandler Parsons sitting over there? The kid from Florida who just hit his second game-winner of the season against South Carolina, the first coming on a 75-footer against N.C. State? Yeah, I'll have what he's having.
• Sherron Collins belongs in any discussion for national Player of the Year, but Kansas is better off with someone else being its leading scorer. The Jayhawks can't keep relying on Collins' scoring to bail them out of tough spots. Xavier Henry in particular needs to get going offensively. In four Big 12 games, Henry is averaging just 9.0 points on 26.2 percent shooting.
• That was a big win for Duke at Clemson, but it looks like Mike Krzyzewski is giving up on his freshmen a little early this season. Mason Plumlee, who played his best game of the season in the win over Wake Forest two weeks ago (11 points and seven rebounds in 15 minutes), played just eight minutes and did not score against the Tigers. Andre Dawkins' minutes have fallen off dramatically in ACC play -- he did not even step on the court at Clemson. That might help the Blue Devils get through some tough conference road games, but it could hinder their preparation for March, when they'll need the newbies to contribute.
• Freshman point guard Maalik Wayns has really been giving Villanova a nice spark off the bench lately. Just one more reason to believe this is a better Wildcats team than the one that made the Final Four last year.
• Explain to me how this is possible: Texas freshman guard J'Covan Brown is third in the nation in free throw shooting at 93.5 percent, yet as a team the Longhorns are ranked 322nd nationally at 62.4 percent. That should tell you just how bad the rest of the team is from the line.
• I don't know whether to be extremely impressed that Michigan State keeps winning ugly, or concerned that this team is not as good as its perfect Big Ten record would indicate. I do know that if Delvon Roe doesn't step up (he is fighting a sprained wrist on his non-shooting hand), the Spartans will be easier to beat in the tournament than they should be.
• Zen Hoop Thought: Cornell's best win was its loss at Kansas.
• Northwestern's win over Illinois was critical because the Wildcats could end up competing with the Illini for an at-large bid. They lost in overtime in Champaign, and if they had been swept it would have been hard to overcome. I'm calling it right now: Northwestern is going to the tournament.
• Reason No. 4,315 why college hoops is better than the NBA: Proud parents who come to games wearing T-shirts bearing their son's name and jersey number.
• In the ongoing Great Conference Debate between the Big 12 and the Big East -- and really, no other league is even in the conversation -- I feel compelled to remind everyone that the Big East has four more teams. Thus, it is not an open-and-shut argument to cite the number of teams the Big East has in the top 25 or the top 10. Take last week's AP poll: Five of the 16 Big East teams were ranked. That's 31.3 percent of the conference. On the other hand, four of the Big 12's teams were ranked, which is 33.3 percent. Both leagues had two teams listed in others receiving votes. Furthermore, the middle and bottom of the Big 12 is clearly superior to the middle and bottom of the Big East. And there are three really bad teams in the Big East (South Florida, DePaul and Rutgers) and two pretty bad teams (St. John's and Providence), while only two Big 12 teams fall into either of those categories (Colorado and Nebraska). So yeah, I'm sticking with the Big 12. For now, anyway.
• Speaking of the Big 12, when I asked Kansas State coach Frank Martin last week what his primary concern was, he said it was his team's tendency to foul too much. Sure enough, two of the guys who played so well in the win over Texas, Dominique Sutton and Jamar Samuels, played just 31 minutes combined in a loss to Oklahoma State because of nine fouls. It was also quite surprising to see Oklahoma State, which has to play a four-guard lineup because of a lack of size, outrebound the Wildcats by five.
• I saw my colleague Ian Thomsen quoted some NBA scouts pegging Oklahoma guard Willie Warren as high as No. 4 in this year's draft. That truly boggles the mind. Warren is barely looking like a pro right now, much less a top-five pick. I suggest those scouts DVR a couple of Sooners games before recommending to their bosses that they make that investment.
• The best part about Seton Hall's win over Pittsburgh on Sunday is the fact that 6-foot-8 forward Herb Pope played his best game of the season, finishing with 19 points and nine rebounds. Sorry to keep picking on Jeremy Hazell, but it is noteworthy that he was limited to 16 minutes because of foul trouble and only had nine points, yet the team still won.
• Totally classless move by several dozen San Diego State students who dressed up as Mormon missionaries to mock BYU when the Cougars came to town on Saturday night. Riding the opposition is fine, but there are a few things that are off-limits, and religion is of them.
• If nothing else, Kentucky is proving once and for all that talent is more important than experience. Think of it this way: Experience is a luxury, but talent is a necessity.
• Kudos to UCLA for beating Washington and Washington State last week, but it is a little sad seeing a Ben Howland-coached team playing this much zone.
• When I covered high school sports at the New Haven Register back in the mid-1990s, a basketball coach at Notre Dame High in West Haven named Gary Palladino told me he believed basketball was 70 percent talent, 20 percent coaching and 10 percent luck. I still haven't heard anybody put it better than that.
• Nice job by John Marshall of The Associated Presspointing out last week how much of a nonfactor the new can't-take-a-charge-under-the-basket rule has been this season. A few months ago it seemed an automatic that a dotted line would be added to the floor next season, but that's not definite anymore.
• The act of rushing the court clearly hit its nadir when Indiana fans did it after their Hoosiers beat Minnesota in overtime. I love that fans are starting to call each other out for this kind of lameness and refuse to storm the court themselves. There is no better example than Kansas State's fans refusing to rush the floor after the big win over Texas. Coolest move of the season, I say.
• Y'all know I've got a bit of a man-crush on Baylor, but I'll have lots of company next season when Perry Jones, a 6-11 forward from Duncanville, Texas, joins the party. Jones is a poor man's Kevin Garnett who will be the best freshman in America next year.
• For all the chatter about North Carolina's struggles, not enough people are noting how much of the Tar Heels' troubles stem from injuries. They were missing two starters when they lost at College of Charleston, they just lost Tyler Zeller for a month, and their best player, Ed Davis, did not suit up against Wake Forest. That said, the one thing that could really be a game changer for this team would be if freshman guard Dexter Strickland plays well enough to be a starter. Alas, Strickland shot 1-for-7 and scored just two points in the loss to the Demon Deacons.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (2)2. Kansas (3)3. Villanova (4)4. Syracuse (6)5. Michigan State (9)6. Georgetown (7)7. Texas (1)8. Duke (5)9. Tennessee (8)10. Kansas State (14)11. West Virginia (11)12. Gonzaga (12)13. Ohio State (13)14. Pittsburgh (10)15. Wisconsin (15)16. Purdue (16)17. Clemson (18)18. Georgia Tech (19)19. Connecticut (NR)20. Ole Miss (24)21. Northwestern (20)22. Temple (21)23. BYU (17)24. Baylor (NR)25. Oklahoma State (NR)
Dropped from my ballot: North Carolina (22), Northern Iowa (23), Siena (25).
Skinny: This week felt a little more perplexing than the last few have been. The season is far enough along that in the end I simply went with my gut. I'll clue you in to my reasoning, but it won't be hard to find inconsistencies. I'm sure you all will be happy to point them out.
Ranking Kentucky No. 1 was a cinch, but it was surprisingly easy to decide how far to drop Texas. I just kept going until I got to the teams that also lost last week. Kansas State was a little trickier. Do I put more weight in the win over Texas (keeping in mind that the Longhorns lost again to a slumping UConn team playing without its head coach) or the loss at home to Oklahoma State? In the end I went with the win, but I also rewarded the Pokes by putting them on my ballot for the first time this season.
The middle didn't change much for me. Even if Gonzaga keeps winning, it will have a hard time cracking the top 10 because it does not play any more ranked teams. As I moved further down my list, I reconsidered some of the decisions I had been making in the past. The thing I am looking for most right now is quality wins. In other words, did that team beat someone else on my ballot? If not, they paid a price.
That's why I dropped BYU six spots even though the Cougars did not lose last week. BYU's best wins this season were over Arizona State and UNLV at home, and Arizona and UTEP on the road. They can make a better case by winning Wednesday night at New Mexico, but for the time being I felt the need to make a course correction.
Ole Miss is holding steady, largely because their neutral court win over Kansas State is holding up so nicely. Northwestern still makes my grade thanks to respectable wins over Notre Dame, Iowa State and on the road at N.C. State (where Duke lost), at Michigan (where UConn lost) and at home over Purdue. That's a pretty strong resume.
The lack of quality wins remains the only reason I am not ranking Vanderbilt, despite all the, uh, helpful suggestions from Vandy fans that they are ballot-worthy. The Commodores' best wins are over Florida at home and Alabama on the road. Not great, not terrible, but they also lost to Cincinnati and Western Kentucky on neutral courts. Vandy will have plenty of chances to make its case over the next two weeks, when it plays at Tennessee, at Kentucky, home against Mississippi State, at Georgia, and home against Tennessee.
Siena dropped off my ballot for the same reason I did not include Vanderbilt: No wins over another team in my top 25. My other almost teams were Northern Iowa, Dayton, Xavier, Virginia Tech, Cincinnati, Mississippi State and Texas A&M. Get me some more quality W's, boys, and I'll be happy to give you my vote.