Fact is, the first NCAA tournament game the Tigers win under Pastner will be — far and away — the biggest victory of his young coaching career. To date, Memphis is 6-12 under Pastner against teams from the traditional power conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and Big East). As all of Tiger Nation tingles with joy over the move to the venerable Big East in 2013, Pastner’s program needs to establish that it can, in fact, beat teams not named Rice, East Carolina, or Tulane.
This Friday in Columbus, Ohio, the Tigers will face Saint Louis in the second round of the Big Dance. (The four games played Tuesday, narrowing the field from 68 to 64, are considered the first round.) Memphis enters the tournament as the West region’s eighth seed. With expectations of at least a sixth or seventh seed — Pastner campaigned for a five after winning the Conference USA tournament — the Tigers will carry a considerable chip on their collective shoulders. What will it take for the U of M to capture its first NCAA tournament win since 2009? Are two wins — and a return to the Sweet 16 — within the realm of possibility? Here are four key factors that will need to go the Tigers’ way.
• Will Barton . . . national star.
Barton has been the player this season that Tiger fans hoped they’d see upon his arrival with the 2010 recruiting class that now shapes the Memphis team. Playing with the body of an NBA shooting guard (a light one), Barton somehow led the U of M in rebounding (8.1 per game in the regular season) and has accumulated 11 double-doubles (points/rebounds), the most since the much larger Chris Massie had 16 in 2002-03. His glowing numbers aside, the older of the Tigers’ two Barton brothers has made this his team. He’s an emotive presence for a team with too many stern faces (including that of his coach). Will Barton is having fun playing basketball this season. The more fun he has, the more likely his team is to advance.
• Feed the (hungry) big man.
• Do what you do best . . . only better.
The Tigers finished the regular season ranked 5th in the country in field-goal percentage (49.5 percent) and 17th in field-goal percentage defense (38.8 percent). On the surface there are no better standards for measuring a basketball team’s overall strength: putting the ball in the basket offensively and preventing opponents from doing the same. The rankings were achieved, though, largely against C-USA competition. (Playing in the Big Ten — top to bottom the best conference in the country this season — Michigan State limited its opponents to 37.6 percent.) Can the Tigers maintain their shooting touch on the brightest stage, against the toughest defenses? Regardless of how the Tigers shoot the ball, their defense shouldn’t slump. With the return of Adonis Thomas from injury and the re-emergence of Wesley Witherspoon, Memphis can put the clamps on most opponents, both inside and on the perimeter. Nothing wrong with winning ugly in the NCAA tournament.
• Surprise support.
It may come from Witherspoon, the departing senior. Or maybe it will be Antonio Barton. It could be Ferrakohn Hall on the defensive end. D.J. Stephens may be the guy. (Stephens leads the nation in applause-per-minute-played.) Supporting actors seize the spotlight during March Madness every bit as often as Hollywood’s favorite scene-stealers. Remember Roburt Sallie’s 35 points against Cal State Northridge in 2009? How about Mingo Johnson pouring in 32 in the near-upset of defending champion Arkansas in 1995? For these Tigers to reach the tournament’s second weekend, someone besides Will Barton, Black, or Joe Jackson (now a two-time C-USA tournament MVP) will have to shock a Memphis opponent with an unexpected performance.
Over 23 games played since Christmas, the Memphis Tigers have lost only three, by a total of six points. Since Pastner ripped the names off their jerseys after a loss to UTEP, they’ve reeled off seven straight wins by an average of more than 22 points. Are there really 28 teams in the country better, as the eight seed suggests? “When we play our game, we feel like we can beat anybody,” says Will Barton. “When we play defense, rebound, and do the little things, it’s pretty hard to beat us.”
Adds Pastner, “We got better from our first year to the second year, from our second year to the third year, and from the beginning of this season to now. It’s a credit to the young men in the locker room and the assistant coaches. That’s our job, and the players’ responsibility. It comes down to the defensive end; that’s the whole thing. It’s about team basketball. It’s about energy. Not about any individual.”
The trick in basketball, of course, is how beautiful team play looks when each individual fulfills his role. Stars shine. Defenders stop. Reserves bring support when (or if) needed. The 2011-12 Tigers have found their chemistry, as it were. To survive the biggest tournament in college sports, it’s now merely a matter of application.