Anything can happen in the NCAA Tournament. See No. 15 seed Norfolk State beating No. 2 seed Missouri. See No. 15 seed Lehigh beating No. 2 seed Duke.
In the same day.
So if you want to frame the Memphis Tigers’ 61-54 loss to Saint Louis University as unexpected, surprising, crazy, an upset, you can do that.
But you’d be kidding yourself.
On Friday, March 16, in Columbus, Ohio, the No. 8 seed Tigers were found out. The No. 9 seed Billikens were the better team. Better coached, more disciplined, the players individually and collectively more ready for the moment. And if you’d never heard of SLU guard Kwamain Mitchell before (game-high 22 points), you know about him now.
The loss ended the Tigers’ season at 26-9 and halted a seven-game winning streak. But none of the teams Memphis beat during that streak made the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers scored wins over three NCAA Tournament teams this season: Belmont, Southern Miss (the Tigers also lost to USM) and Xavier.
They lost seven games to tournament teams: Georgetown (twice), Michigan, Murray State, Louisville, and of course Southern Miss, and then Saint Louis in the tourney. Add it all up, they were 3-7 against the NCAA Tourney field.
They feasted, however, against mediocre competition. All year, Tigers coach Josh Pastner implored fans and media to believe that Conference USA was better than its national reputation. He played this card because, really, what other card could he play?
The Tigers won the regular season and tournament titles, and Pastner needed for those championships to have value. He said publicly the Tigers should be a 5 seed. Then against the Billikens, they get out-rebounded 31-26, shoot 38.9 percent from the floor, 13.3 percent from 3-point range (2-of-15) and 58.8 percent (10-of-17) from the free-throw line. They made a season-low four assists (all by Joe Jackson) and their 54 points were a season low as well.
Obvious conclusion: Not only were the Tigers over-hyped when they had a preseason ranking of No. 9 in the coaches poll and a No. 8 ranking in the Nov. 21 polls, they were over-hyped as an unranked team saying it had been disrespected by the NCAA Tournament Committee with an 8 seed. They boldly spoke of making a “deep run,” but deep runs start with winning the first game and they couldn’t do that.
What the Tigers did do was to find a nice rhythm during the seven-game winning streak and demolish teams with inferior talent. And it was fun. But as Pastner himself said going into the Saint Louis game, at this time of year, “you are who you are.”
So it was only fitting that forward Tarik Black played just 19 minutes, scored just four points and fouled out. It was only fitting that the Tigers flung shots from 3-point range and never found a way to consistently crack the Rick Majerus-coached half-court defense of SLU. Or to change the game’s tempo for more than a few minutes.
So, at the end, it was up to C-USA Player of the Year Will Barton (16 points) to try and put the team on his back and carry the Tigers to a miracle finish. They proved too heavy.
Just about every flaw that had been on display and caused concern before appeared again. Which is what happens against better teams.
You are who you are. Or in the Tigers’ case, not quite as good as you thought you were.
— Don Wade