Quick question: What's the most significant win for the Memphis Tigers in three seasons under Coach Josh Pastner? Was it the win over St. John's in the 2010 NIT? (Nope. It was the NIT.) Perhaps knocking off Miami of the mighty ACC ... twice? (Come on. That's a football school.) How about the two wins this season over Tennessee? (Four years too late.)
Fact is, the first NCAA tournament game the Tigers win under Pastner will be the biggest victory of his young coaching career. To date, Memphis is 6-12 under Pastner against teams from the traditional power conferences. 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. 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. C-USA's scoring champion and Player of the Year is considered by some (if not most) to be on his way to the NBA at the conclusion of this, his sophomore season at Memphis. Nothing vaults a college player up draft boards like a star turn in the NCAA tournament. Does Charlotte take Kemba Walker with the ninth pick if he doesn't lead Connecticut to the 2011 national championship? Unlikely.
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. Not since Massie played his last game nine years ago has Memphis featured a low-post offensive presence like Tarik Black. And the sophomore from Ridgeway High School has become, quite literally, pivotal to the team's offensive success. Black led C-USA in field-goal percentage (68.2 percent, a single-season Memphis record) and had a five-game stretch late in the season when his made/attempts looked like this: 9/10, 10/13, 4/8, 8/8, 7/8. That kind of scoring efficiency can't be ignored. The fear with Black — as for any big man in the college game — is foul trouble. The Tigers' chances for advancing improve the closer Black gets to 30 minutes of playing time.
• 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. 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 reemergence 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," Will Barton says. "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.