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Rounding Up The Dark Horses With the help of a precocious coach-in-training at Arizona, we check out the long shots and speculate on which of them might gallop to the Alamodome

March 16, 1998
March 16, 1998

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March 16, 1998

Rounding Up The Dark Horses With the help of a precocious coach-in-training at Arizona, we check out the long shots and speculate on which of them might gallop to the Alamodome

Perhaps the least suspenseful moment in last Sunday's NCAA
selection show was the unveiling of the tournament's top four
seeds. We've known who they would be since November. History
nonetheless tells us that they won't compose the Final Four, and
hence our task: finding, scaring up or otherwise raising an
Arizona--some improbable team that, like last season's Wildcats,
will make a run deep into the tournament, if not win it.

This is an article from the March 16, 1998 issue Original Layout

To do so, we could have scrolled through the power ratings,
rankings and other cybereffluvia clogging the Internet, or
trotted out the usual follically impaired TV pundits whose
verbiage is fouling the airwaves. But we came up with a better
idea. We found an obscure flesh-and-blood college basketball
polymath who has barely started shaving, let alone lost any
hair. He knows cold both the Arizona team of a year ago (for he
was on it) and all that has transpired in the game this season
(for he has seen it).

Meet Arizona sophomore Josh Pastner, a 5'11" reserve guard who
spends up to 25 hours a week in the film room of the Wildcats'
basketball office. "I've wanted to be a coach since the fourth
grade," says Pastner, who began reading all he could about the
game as a grade-schooler and by age 12 was phoning college
coaches to pick their brains and cadge game tapes. By 13 Josh
had started his own high school scouting service. By 14 he and
his dad, Hal, had founded a traveling AAU team, the Houston
Hoops. By the time he was 15, coaches from the top programs were
calling him at home in Kingwood, a Houston suburb, for a dose of
The World According to Josh. A year later he was running the
Hoops on his own, directing tryouts and arranging flights as
well as handling the X's and O's, despite being younger than the
players in his charge. Josh even started a girls' team so he
could steepen his learning curve.

Three Top 20 programs offered Pastner assistant coaching jobs
out of high school. (He declines to name the schools, for
obvious reasons.) Instead, in 1996 Pastner, who's known as the
Doogie Howser of college basketball, accepted a scholarship to
play at Arizona. Now 20, he shows up at the Wildcats' basketball
offices at seven each morning to help coach Lute Olson and his
staff. Except to go to classes, he doesn't leave the McKale
Center until 10 or 11 at night, after supervising extra shooting
by players such as his roommate, point guard Mike Bibby, and
swingmen Michael Dickerson and Miles Simon. Along the way,
Pastner watches tape. So much tape, in fact, that he can tell
you exactly why he likes....

Mississippi. All the way down to its red-and-blue uniforms, Ole
Miss has that Arizona look: The Rebels have passers, handlers
and shooters at every position--beginning with SEC player of the
year Ansu Sesay, Pastner's homey, a graduate of Houston's
Willowridge High--and, with four players scoring nine or more
per game, they spread the points around. Also like Arizona,
Mississippi is a good three-point-shooting team that defends
against the shot so well (opponents don't make even one in
three) that there's little percentage in taking it.

Ole Miss has never won a tournament game, but that doesn't faze
Pastner, who notes that the edition of the Rebels that reached
the NCAAs a year ago is back essentially intact. And there
should be no question about the moxie of a team that fell behind
24-11 at Rupp Arena on Feb. 14 and then came back to beat
Kentucky. "Mississippi is experienced," says Pastner. "It has a
star player. And its style will be hard to prepare for on short
notice."

The same is true of TCU and its star, forward Lee Nailon. Horned
Frogs coach Billy Tubbs, who made NCAA tournament noise with
perennial underdog Lamar in the late 1970s and took Oklahoma to
the '88 championship game, has another fearless, up-tempo crew.
Like Arizona, TCU has three perimeter scorers and the ability,
with reserve James Penny, to field five players who can score
facing the basket--although point guard Prince Fowler, like
Bibby, doesn't look first to shoot. Also like the '97 champs,
the Horned Frogs can claim that they have been denied respect.
Though Texas Christian hopped through its WAC schedule unbeaten,
it wasn't admitted to the coaches' Top 25 until Feb. 16. "TCU
plays that style, up and down," says Pastner. "The Frogs are
like us in that they don't have set places on the floor. How do
you set up your scout team?"

It's hard to think of a No. 2 seed as a team that might sneak up
on anybody, but there's such a perception gap between the four
No. 1s and the rest of the field that Connecticut arguably
qualifies as a sleeper. There has been very little whoopee
surrounding the Huskies this season--certainly nowhere near the
amount of two years ago, when UConn took All-America Ray Allen
and a top seeding into the tournament, only to fail to reach the
Southeast Regional final. Now that Olson has finally had his
hair messed up in a Monday-night celebration, the Huskies' Jim
Calhoun shares the mantle of Coach Most Overdue with Kansas's
Roy Williams and Purdue's Gene Keady.

Other evidence of UConn's Arizona-ness: a precocious freshman
point guard, Khalid El-Amin, who does the nation's best
impression of the Bibby of a year ago; a three-guard attack; and
a victory over Stanford thanks to speed, versatility and
defensive pressure. "With Khalid and sophomores Kevin Freeman
and Jake Voskuhl, the Huskies aren't real old," Pastner points
out, intending a compliment. "Last year we had a sense of
confidence that all the work we put in, the extra shooting and
extra weightlifting, would pay off. That's one of the good
things about being young--you don't know any better. In the
tournament we were just kids running around."

Clemson is like the 1996-97 Wildcats in that it received a
middling No. 6 seed as a result of a rocky regular season, and
in that one of its critical cogs, guard Terrell McIntyre, has
been hampered by infirmities, as Simon was a year ago. But
Clemson, picked as high as No. 5 in the preseason, is at full
strength again. "From the tape I saw of the Tigers' second game
with Duke, they're very disciplined," Pastner says. "Remember,
too, that they have experience. They made the Sweet 16 last
year." Pastner also notes that Clemson finished tied for fourth
in the ACC and made the NCAA field at 21-9. A year ago Arizona
placed fifth in its league and lost nine games.

Admit it. You wrote off Michigan. Of course, you had every
reason to: the Wolverines' coaching change on the eve of fall
practice; the foot injury suffered by forward Maceo Baston; the
suspect wind of 300-plus-pound center Robert (Tractor) Traylor;
the unfulfilled potential of forward Jerod Ward, the 1994
national high school player of the year; the propensity of
various Wolverines to get into sport-utility-vehicle rollovers
at odd hours of the night. After Michigan's early losses to
Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan, and the superb seasons
turned in by Michigan State and Detroit, the Wolverines looked
to be the fifth-best team in the state, no a-maize and all blue.

Well, Pastner urges you to take another look. With Baston back,
Michigan now suits up four former high school All-Americas, all
of them upperclassmen. And Ward, a senior, is at long last
living up to his billing. Several victories--a defeat of then
No. 1 Duke on Dec. 13, a 48-point mauling of Indiana on Feb. 22,
and a persuasive win over Purdue in the Big Ten title game last
Sunday--hint tantalizingly at what the Wolverines are capable
of. "I'm sure they want to win for their coach [Brian Ellerbe]
to help him get the 'interim' label off," says Pastner. "Last
year, for us to give Coach Olson his first national title, it
was something special."

On Feb. 28, while most of the country was watching Duke and
North Carolina take turns playing lousy halves against one
another, Pastner passed for an assist as Arizona thumped then
No. 8 Stanford 90-58 with a wire-to-wire floor show of lobs and
dunks and fearlessly flushed three-pointers. Yet in the coaches'
poll taken after that game, the Wildcats drew only two of 30
first-place votes--even though they hadn't lost since December;
they play the same eight-man rotation that won a championship
last spring; they've put in more time in the gym and the weight
room than a year ago; they have a point guard who's stronger and
steadier as a sophomore; they've fulfilled their goal of finally
winning a Pac-10 title; and they're holding themselves to such
high standards that guard Jason Terry refers to narrow
conference victories over Arizona State, Oregon State and Cal as
losses.

All of which leads to a parting point that Pastner would like to
direct to anyone who doubts his bona fides as a prognosticator.
"Two summers ago, before I entered as a freshman, I saw [Arizona
assistant] coach [Jim] Rosborough at the Peach Basket Classic in
Augusta, Georgia," he says. "It was July, and I told him, 'We're
going to win the national championship this season.'"

With Arizona still intact, hungry and believing that it's being
accorded scant respect, let the record reflect: Pastner can
think of no better stand-in for last year's Wildcats than this
year's.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO AN INSIDE TIP Jason Smith is part of a nucleus of tournament veterans who make Mississippi, a No. 4 seed, a title threat. [Jason Smith and others in game]COLOR PHOTO: PAUL F. GERO/SABA CAPTAIN VIDEO The indefatigable Pastner analyzes tape with the precocity that Doogie Howser brought to reading medical charts. [Josh Pastner]
By age 12 Pastner was calling college coaches to pick their
brains and cadge game tapes.