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VOL. 127 | NO. 49 | Monday, March 12, 2012

Roar of the Tiger: Memphis Captures C-USA Championship

By Don Wade

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Before halftime it was clear that the University of Memphis would be cutting down the nets at FedExForum as champions of the Conference USA Tournament. Again, their defense and athleticism – one and the same for the Tigers – was too much for an overwhelmed opponent as they defeated Marshall, 83-57, on Saturday for their seventh straight win and third consecutive blowout in the tournament.

Memphis guard Joe Jackson (1) goes to the basket against Marshall players Nigel Spikes (11) and DeAndre Kane (24) in the championship game of the Conference USA tournament at the FedExForum on Saturday.  Memphis defeated Marshall 83-57. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Players found coach Josh Pastner standing near mid-court during the post-game celebration, his guard down just long enough to be hit with the traditional “Gatorade shower.” Senior Wesley Witherspoon said the players also had designs on getting assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, but he “slid out, he’s a crafty veteran.”

It was reminder that the Tigers (26-8) have a young coach and a young team and that together they have come a long way. They now have won 20 of their last 23.

Pastner’s next assignment: go on the stump.

“No doubt in my mind we deserve a 5 seed,” he said, speaking unsolicited to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, which will release the 68-team field Sunday.

“Obviously, I’m probably a little biased being the head coach at Memphis,” Pastner continued. “But look at our resume compared to some others. We should be in the discussion.”

So, here are some quick talking points if arguing the Tigers deserve, say, a 6 seed (Pastner is a little biased) and no worse than a 7 seed.

Sophomore point guard Joe Jackson is playing great. He was named conference tournament MVP for the second straight year (the first back-to-back winner in league history) and he topped off his run with 19 points, six assists and just three turnovers while knocking down 10-of-11 free throws. Great point guard play is crucial in the NCAAs.

Power forward Tarik Black, an all-tournament team selection, survived crashing into the Marshall bench and just has a bruised wrist – disaster averted. And just about every time he touched the ball in this tournament he seemed to be throwing down a vicious dunk. As long as he stays out of foul trouble, the Tigers have a post presence.

C-USA Player of the Year Will Barton also landed on the all-tourney team with 18 points and 13 rebounds in the title game.

“Will is the best guard rebounder in the country,” Pastner said. “He can affect the game without scoring.”

Memphis forward Wesley Witherspoon cuts down the net after defeating Marshall during the championship game of the Conference USA tournament at the FedExForum on Saturday.  Memphis defeated Marshall 83-57. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

But given that he averages 18.1 points a game, he also can affect the game with scoring. A nice double-double.

The Tigers’ defense, which went up a couple of notches as they held UTEP and Marshall each to 57 points and Central Florida to 52. That defense fuels their offense. Their average margin of victory in the tournament: 25 points.

“That team might be the most improved team in the country in the last three or four weeks,” said Marshall coach Tom Herrion. “We played up-hill and had to play from behind.”

Which might be what Pastner is doing as he campaigns for a 5 seed. Black doesn’t even see the need for it.

“My opinion, I don’t care what seed we are,’’ he said. “I don’t care if we’re a 12. Everybody that walks into the gym to play Memphis understands what they’ve gotten themselves into.”

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