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VOL. 127 | NO. 48 | Friday, March 09, 2012

Conference USA Tourney Is Biz Time for City, Tigers

By Don Wade

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If the University of Memphis reaches the finals of the Conference USA Men’s Basketball Tournament on Saturday, FedExForum will be at full volume and full capacity.

That’s the way it works when the host school gets to play for the tournament title on its home floor. But at the start, the scene is a bit more subdued, as it was late on the morning of Wednesday, March 7.

Some 30 minutes before Rice and East Carolina tipped off in the first game of the tournament, and quite likely the last C-USA Tournament held in Memphis, fewer than 50 people were in the lower bowl. Josh Smith and Nicholas Van Wyhe were among them, wearing their Tigers gear and ready to soak up every second of basketball to be played over the next four days.

“I want the Tigers to win,” Smith, 30, said. “But it’s still the conference tournament and I’m here to watch the whole thing. It’s not the greatest conference, but it’s not that bad.”

John Oros, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau executive vice president, said the men’s and women’s C-USA Tournaments are projected to have a $3 million economic impact. Oros also said more than 5,000 hotel nights have been booked.

Meanwhile, there is the impact of the Tigers leaving C-USA for the Big East. Memphis and Orlando (home of Central Florida) had been the only cities to seriously pursue the 2013 C-USA Tournament next March, when the Tigers will be lame-duck members of the league.

“We’d love to have it back here,” Oros said. “Whether the conference feels the same way, we don’t know.”

Memphis and FedExForum served as host for the men’s tournament for five straight years – 2005-2009. In 1996 and 2000, the men’s tournament was played at The Pyramid. But the tournament never generated the same buzz as when the Southeastern Conference (SEC) basketball tournament was played at The Pyramid.

“The out-of-town draw for Conference USA schools isn’t as strong as some conferences,” Oros said. “But it’s still a nice tournament for us.”

And from a basketball perspective, having home court is a nice edge. The Tigers didn’t fare so well in 2010 in Tulsa, losing their first game to Houston. But last year in El Paso, Texas, home of UTEP, Memphis beat the Miners on their home court in the finals, 67-66. The atmosphere and what it meant for the home team left an impression.

“It’s a huge advantage (being at home),” Tigers guard and C-USA Player of the Year Will Barton said. “I remember UTEP, the championship, it was rocking in there. We need all the support we can get.”

Coach Josh Pastner has urged Memphians to support the C-USA men’s and women’s tourneys in hopes that they will return to Memphis in 2013 because come tournament time in the spring of 2014 the Tigers will be in hostile territory.

“The Big East (Tournament) will be in New York the next 30 years,” Pastner said, knowing future conference tournaments will require the Tigers to win multiple games at Madison Square Garden.

Oros said being in the Big East has the potential to help the city’s tourism through the football and basketball seasons.

“There will be some old rivalries renewed,” he said. “It might fill some of the void of not having the Conference USA Tournament here. Visitors who want to see their football and basketball teams play the Tigers will be spending in restaurants, hotels and on Beale Street.”

Those early-arriving C-USA Tournament fans were in agreement that going to the Big East is good for Memphis, with Van Wyhe calling it a “big triumph.”

But the Tigers can’t worry about a Syracuse or a Connecticut in Madison Square Garden in 2014. Pastner has reminded his players that the same thing will motivate every team they face from now on.

“It’s desperation time for everyone,” Pastner said. “Are we in the NCAA Tournament? Yes. But we’re playing for forward momentum and the seed.”

And also for a bit of history. In the previous 16 C-USA Tournaments, the Tigers have won four – from 2006-2009, right here, on their home floor.

Said Barton: “We gotta take care of business.”

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