Through six seasons, Tigers coach Josh Pastner has led Memphis to two Conference-USA regular season titles, three Conference-USA Tournament Championships, four NCAA Tournament appearances and is the winningest coach through six seasons in school history (148-58).
Those accolades are impressive, but they may not be enough for Memphis fans, as Pastner enters his seventh and arguably most important season with the Tigers.
Memphis is coming off its least successful year since Pastner took over for former coach John Calipari in 2009, going 18-14 on the season and failing to reach a post-season tournament for the first time since 2000.
Adding fuel to the fire, seven players, including the team’s leading scorer and star player Austin Nichols, transferred from the program over the last year, exacerbating the fans’ criticisms.
Pastner and company will have to right the ship this season if he hopes to gain back not only the trust of the fan base, but also slow down the national narrative of being on the “hot seat.”
Inconsistencies against top teams, players not developing to reach their full potential, and lack of post-season tournament success have been key arguments against Pastner in his time at Memphis. After the down year, expectations and support seem to be at critically low levels.
Pastner understands how important this season is for the program and said they can use last year as a learning experience.
“I think the lessons I learned from last year will benefit our team going forward for this year,” he said in a press conference. “That doesn’t mean we are going to win any more games, it’s just I think we will be more ready to go from the start. We got to be ready to go from the jump because of who we are playing. I believe we will start out well. We need to start out well, but I also truly believe we will be playing our best basketball when we get to conference play.”
In this all-important season for Pastner and the Tigers, Memphis will be tasked with trial by fire as 10 new faces suit up for the Tigers this season.
With only six returning players from the 2014-15 squad, Pastner said freshmen will be relied on heavily, especially highly touted brothers K.J. and Dedric Lawson.
“We need KJ and Dedric to be at a high level for us,” Pastner said in a press conference. “We need them to play relentless and we need them to produce. They are both capable of producing at a high level and due to our personnel those guys are going to be thrown in the fire from the beginning. It’s not going to be like ‘let’s wait a year,’ it’s now and that starts from the first game.”
The Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll. The Tigers will need to push for a top four spot in the conference if they hope to make the NCAA tournament.
Pastner said he expected to be picked fifth and believes overall the conference will be improved top to bottom.
“I think the league is going to be good,” he said. “I think the bottom of the league has gotten better, and I think there is going to be a lot of parity in the league this year.”
The Tigers are not projected to be a top team, but with a talented roster the Tigers have a chance to surprise people this year and be better than expected. Pastner said they must remain healthy, as injuries could be the biggest detriment to the season.
“I think our entire key is our key guys staying healthy,” the seventh-year coach said. “If we stay healthy I think we are going to be underselling and over performing, but the bottom line is we got to stay healthy. That is our entire key to our season, our health for our key guys.”
Tiger coach Josh Pastner has seen his team qualify for the NCAA Tournament four times in his previous six seasons.