To advance to the second round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, the Arizona men’s basketball team will have to beat one of their own: Memphis head coach Josh Pastner.
While fans fondly remember Pastner as one of the nation’s top recruiters for legendary coach Lute Olsen, many forget his presence on the 1997 national championship squad as a walk-on freshman.
The man who wore number 12 in cardinal red and navy blue now looks to make some noise in the tournament’s west region with his coincidentally-12th-seeded Memphis Tigers. To do so, Pastner must first face his alma mater as both teams look to build off exciting conference tournament finishes.
The Tigers (25-9) are coming off three straight wins in the Conference USA Tournament, including a 66-65 come-from-behind victory over UTEP in the championship game. Memphis closed the game out on a 17-4 run, which included two clutch free throws by Joe Jackson with seven seconds left, and earned the team an automatic invitation to the Big Dance.
The Wildcats (27-7) are looking to rebound from their heartbreaking loss to Washington in the Pac-10 Tournament championship. Arizona allowed the Huskies to send the game into overtime with three big shots from behind the arc in the final minute of regulation. With the game tied 75-75 in the extra period, Washington guard Isaiah Thomas hit a fade away jumper, beating the buzzer and sealing the Wildcats’ collapse.
Two teams so familiar with late-game intrigue should provide the excitement that the NCAA Tournament is so famous for immediately in the first round.
Slowing down Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams is tough for any team, especially one like Pastner’s Tigers, who lack a strong force in the paint to contain him.
Memphis starts four guards and prefers to be a more fast-paced team. Probably their best chance at slowing down Williams is 6’9″ forward Wesley Witherspoon. The only problem is Witherspoon has been inconsistent all season as he’s dealt with a knee injury and a team-induced suspension.
Producing an upset will require the the Tigers to get their usual production off the bench and minimize the damage Williams will try to cause.
The two teams’ similarities, though, go farther than just their recent experience with close games.
Memphis and Arizona are both undersized units with their share of rebounding struggles, earning them national rankings of 131st and 193rd, respectively. For the Wildcats this comes despite Williams’ and his 8.1 rebounding average.
While both teams are relatively young, featuring only one senior each, Memphis starts four freshmen and plays five. The inexperience often shows as they don’t take care of the ball well, averaging 15.3 turnovers a game.
One of Arizona’s strengths, though, will further hamper one of Memphis’ biggest weaknesses. The Wildcats have been locking down opponents from long range all season, allowing only a 28.8 three-point shooting percentage, while the Tigers have struggled hitting threes, shooting only 32.7%.
The Wildcats and Tigers faceoff Friday at 11:45 a.m. in Tulsa Oklahoma for the right to advance to the second round. The winner will take on the winner of the Texas vs. Oakland match up.