March Madness means dramatic finishes and story lines that could not be invented by the human imagination.
The NCAA Selection Committee punctuated that thought Sunday night as they matched the No. 5 seed Arizona Wildcats with the No.12 seed Memphis Tigers. Memphis is led by Arizona alum and a Tucson favorite Josh Pastner.
Pastner, who has only missed the NCAA tournament once in his 15 years as a player and coach, will face his alma mater for the first time in Tulsa, Okla. Friday afternoon.
As a walk-on at Arizona, Pastner was part of the 1997 National Championship team. As an assistant coach at Arizona, he blossomed into a tireless recruiter under the legendary Lute Olson.
The son of a Houston area high school and AAU basketball coach, Pastner new he wanted to coach at an early age. At 13, he began publishing the “Josh Pastner Scouting Report” which scouted local Houston high school talent. By age 16, his father turned over the coaching reigns to his Houston Hoops AAU squad where Pastner would coach future NBAers Emeka Okafor, T.J. Ford and Daniel Gibson.
Pastner walked on to Arizona in 1996, in 2000, he became a member of Lute Olson’s staff as a graduate assistant and in 2003, he became a full time assistant coach. Pastner, in six years at Arizona, helped lead the Wildcats to a 137-60 record while winning two Pac-10 regular season championships. The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA tournament in all six of Pastner’s seasons, reaching two Final Fours.
Pastner was more than a basketball player and coach to the city of Tucson. He was involved in philanthropic charities that benefited youths, medical research and law enforcement. In 2007, Pastner was named to the Tucson “40 under 40” which recognizes young business leaders in Tucson for their charitable efforts.
Olson knows that while Pastner’s loyalties are to Memphis, he will always be a Wildcat at heart.
“He loves Tucson. I saw that he said he ‘bleeds blue and gray’ … I know, I know what his feelings are about Arizona,” Olson said.
If Pastner’s success as an assistant translates into success as a head coach, the Tigers are in for another long run as Conference USA top dogs.
Scout.com, FoxSports.com and the Basketball Times all had included Pastner in their top-10 best assistant coaches lists. He recruited some of the nation’s best players to Arizona and Memphis. In fact, Pastner has recruited and coached 23 NBA draft picks, including 12 lottery picks.
Current Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari lured Pastner to Memphis in 2008 as his top assistant. When Calipari jumped to Kentucky in 2009, Pastner became one of the youngest head coaches in the country at 31 years of age.
While Memphis missed the NCAA tournament last year, Pastner has the Tigers on track to get back to where they were under Calipari. Last Saturday, Memphis erased a 12-point deficit with six minutes remaining to defeat UTEP to win its first C-USA tournament championship under Pastner.
While Pastner is excited about Memphis earning a NCAA bid, he is not talking much about his Arizona connections.
“I wore No. 12 as a player at Arizona, and so we are the 12 seed going against Arizona. Other than that, I’m excited. We’re in the NCAA Tournament,” he said.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller weighed in on Pastner’s efforts at Memphis and what he means to this Wildcats program.
“It’s never easy to follow someone like John Calipari, who is so dynamic in his approach. He’s [Pastner] done a really, really, terrific job, and I wish we weren’t playing him because of what he means to Arizona, but that’s the game we’re playing, and we’re going to be ready,” Miller said.
One thing is for sure, when Pastner’s name is announced as the head coach of the Tigers in Tulsa on Friday afternoon, he will receive a heroes welcome from the Wildcat faithful. But as the Wildcats and Tigers meet at center court and set for the tip, the focus on all sides will be getting to the third round on Sunday.