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VOL. 129 | NO. 52 | Monday, March 17, 2014

Tigers Look to Reverse AAC Result

By Don Wade

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The Memphis Tigers were bound to pay a price for getting run off their home court in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference by UConn. And on Selection Sunday, they found out the price was landing in another 8-9 game in the NCAA Tournament.

Memphis (23-9) is the No. 8 seed in the East Region and will play No. 9 seed George Washington University (24-8) in the round of 64 on Friday, March 21, in Raleigh, N.C. The winner of the game likely gets No. 1 seed Virginia in the round of 32.

Tigers coach Josh Pastner had believed they could still get a 6 or 7 seed after the early exit from the conference tournament.

“But once they showed Louisville (which won the AAC Tournament title) at 4, I figured everybody dropped,” Pastner said. “I assumed we’d be one or two seeds lower than what I thought.”

Following a poor showing in their opening game of the American Athletic Conference Tournament, the Tigers are hoping for a run in the NCAA Tournament.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Including the 72-53 loss to UConn, the Tigers have lost three of their last five games. That’s not the way to move up in seeding, but a guarantee that you will be moving down.

In previous years, Pastner and the team watched the Selection Show and media were invited to attend. Coming off Conference USA regular season and Tournament titles, there was a celebratory air to things.

Not so Sunday night. Pastner, and senior guards Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr., met with media outside the coaches’ offices and the mood was subdued. Given how poorly the last game went and that Memphis has not won consecutive games since defeating Rutgers and Temple in late February, there was an obvious question to be asked:

Why should anyone expect much better from the Tigers on Friday against George Washington?

“Because every game is a different game,” Dixon said.

As for the criticism directed at the team and the coach in recent days, Crawford said: “All those negative things just go in one ear and out the other.”

Said Pastner: “We had a very good regular season and a bad game, that’s what it was.”

The quick thumbnail of the GW Colonials is that they went 11-5 in the Atlantic 10, which placed six teams in the NCAA field. Their best win was a non-conference victory on Dec. 1 over Creighton, which received a No. 3 seed.

Guard Maurice Creek leads GW with 14.3 points per game and is the team’s top 3-point shooter (40.6 percent). Forward Isaiah Armwood averages 12.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Forward Kevin Larsen averages 11.3 points and 7.0 rebounds. And guard Joe McDonald leads in assists with 4.1 per game.

Memphis senior forward David Pellom transferred from GW and Pastner said “he had a big smile on his face” when the pairing came up on the NCAA Selection Show.

Crawford said the Tigers are not concerned about their seed – “anything can happen this time of season,” he said – and the statement carries a ring of truth given that last week Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs were ranked 25th in the Associated Press Poll and on Sunday they learned they were not invited to the Big Dance.

Also puzzling: the way in which the AAC teams beat up on each other this season. Memphis swept Louisville, but went 0-2 against Cincinnati and 0-3 vs. UConn, including that dismal performance in the AAC Tournament. Louisville split with Cincinnati, but went 3-0 against UConn.

Sitting in the Louisville locker room wearing his new AAC Championship cap, guard Chris Jones (Melrose) said: “That’s crazy. I never thought of that. It shows how good the conference is.”

Or maybe it’s that good, not great, is the operative word.

Still, Pastner was rather amazed there could be so much criticism from some fans in a season that included winning the Old Spice Classic, notching multiple wins over Top 25 teams, and sweeping Louisville.

“Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets heard,” the coach said. “I don’t think that’s the majority of fans. I think there’s a minority of fans, if we go 40-0, would find fault with us and myself. Those people can take a hike as far as I’m concerned.”

Former Memphis coach John Calipari dubbed the program’s most vocal critics “The Miserables.” Pastner prefers the “Negative Nellies.” But whatever they are called, they probably have something in common with the rest of Tiger Nation: high expectations.

“People are going to judge us by what we do in this tournament,” Pastner said. “Fair or not, that’s the facts. We can’t hide from that.”

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