Evaluating a coach’s ability is a difficult thing. On either end of the spectrum, sure, it’s not too difficult. Obviously, Mike Krzyzewski is very good at leading a program, and we can find a coach or two in recent years that ran a program with great resources into the ground and assume they were not very good at their job. (Although, often a coach gets a chance at a high-major program because he had success at a school with limited resources.)
However, the majority of coaches do not fall into such tidy categories. After three seasons at Duke, I’m guessing Coach K was not viewed as one of the planet’s best coaches. At various times in the past decade, Ben Howland and Tubby Smith were thought of as the game’s best coaches, but eventually they were forced out of their jobs.
The title of this post is misleading because I’m not going to defend Josh Pastner’s coaching ability. It’s really about highlighting the primitive state of coaching evaluation. I’d guess Pastner is a pretty good coach, but Memphis fans don’t really want a pretty good coach. If Pastner had followed Tic Price, they’d accept a pretty good coach, but he didn’t and expectations are higher now. The thing is, pretty good coaches sometimes have great results (see Smith and Howland). Luck and good fortune is all around us and it affects the accomplishments of coaches just like anything else.
If John Wooden had accepted the job offer at Minnesota in 1948, I’m guessing he would have found it more difficult to recruit great players to the snowy north than to SoCal, and who knows what book Seth Davis would be hocking now. If Pitt’s Gilbert Brown (79 percent shooter) made his second free throw against Butler with a second to go in the 2011 round of 32, would Brad Stevens be coaching the Celtics? We can’t know the answer, but getting to the title game wouldn’t have happened without that event, one that Stevens had no control over. And getting to the consecutive title games boosted Stevens’ reputation to legendary status.
One of the signature beefs with Pastner is that he can’t beat good teams. Before yesterday’s win over Oklahoma State, he was 0-13 against teams ranked in the AP top 25. It’s true that if you fancy your program a top ten team, you are going to beat top 25 teams on occasion. But very few coaches are going to have a winning record against top 25 teams, because top 25 teams don’t lose often. Furthermore, Memphis has often been at a disadvantage playing these teams.
I’m going to use my own ratings for this analysis, because it’s easy, and besides, most voters are not trying to rank the 25 best teams in the country. But the results are similar to using the AP – Pastner actually gets one win before yesterday using my system. (A sign that 0-13 was manipulated: It actually required that one use the AP poll specifically, because Memphis beat Saint Mary’s in the NCAA tournament last season when the Gaels were ranked in the coaches’ poll but not by the writers.) Here’s a summary of how Pastner has done against my top 25.
11/17/09 L vs. 2 Kansas 57-55 (N) 01/06/10 L vs. 4 Syracuse 74-57 (A) 12/07/10 L vs. 2 Kansas 81-68 (N) 03/18/11 L vs. 23 Arizona 77-75 (N) 11/21/11 L vs. 23 Michigan 73-61 (N) 11/23/11 L vs. 16 Georgetown 91-88 OT (N) 12/17/11 L vs. 14 Louisville 95-87 (A) 12/22/11 L vs. 16 Georgetown 70-59 (A) 03/16/12 L vs. 17 Saint Louis 61-54 (N) 11/22/12 L vs. 20 VCU 78-65 (N) 12/15/12 L vs. 1 Louisville 87-78 (H) 03/21/13 W vs. 23 St. Mary’s 54-52 (N) 03/23/13 L vs. 9 Mich St. 70-48 (N) 11/19/13 L vs. 5 Ok. State 101-80 (A) 12/01/13 W vs. 5 Ok. State 73-68 (N)
The thing about this list is that all but one of these games is not at home, and that game was against the best team in the nation. I’m not sure how many games you would have expected a team to win with this schedule, but if Memphis had an average of a 33% chance over the 15 games, you’d expect five wins and they had two.
There is no denying Pastner has underachieved in this regard. But whether it’s because he’s inadequate as a coach or just because stuff happens is impossible to say. The difference between two and five wins isn’t large enough to provide proof that Josh Pastner is doing something wrong against very good teams.
For all but the top five or ten coaches in the game, their record against top 25 teams in road/neutral games will not be pretty. But if one is wishing to be critical of Josh Pastner, then you have a damning stat right there for you. And I hope one win won’t change your perception! The pair of games vs. Oklahoma State really illustrates how crazy it is to put a ton of stock in a single game. Two weeks ago, Marcus Smart couldn’t miss. Last night, he was struggling to even hit rim. And while Memphis’s defense may have had something to do with that, it doesn’t explain everything.
We last visited this issue when Frank Haith was widely being applauded midway through his first season at Missouri. He was a horrible hire before the season, then became a great hire as the Tigers rose up the polls. Then Missouri was upset by Norfolk State in their first NCAA tournament game, at which point few were saying he was a great hire. Perhaps Haith is a pretty good coach, as well. Some games he gets breaks that make him look like a great coach. When the breaks go against him, he looks like an inferior option. Pastner may be no different.
But over the past 24 hours, the perception of him has risen like the Bitcoin. He’s now in a conference where he’ll have home games against top 25 teams, so it wouldn’t be surprising if his stock rises further. And while I’m sure Josh Pastner is constantly trying to improve as a coach, I doubt he had some sort of epiphany in the past two weeks that makes him any different now than he was then. When the difference between 0-13 and 1-13 is enough to change the perception of a coach, that says all you need to know about our ability to evaluate them.