Memphis Set to Welcome Gonzaga, ESPN

By Don Wade

He laughed with officials. During the game. He sat down. During the game.

The Tigers’ 101-69 victory over Rutgers Tuesday, Feb. 4, at FedExForum was a literal laugher. Even for University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner.

Sure, he said the usual things afterward. Rutgers was a “good team” with “good players” and Eddie Jordan was a “great coach.”

Memphis will host ESPN College Gameday Saturday, Feb. 8, at FedExForum, where the Tigers will play Gonzaga that night.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

But the Tigers led by as many as 37 points in the first half, by as many as 41 in the second half. For anyone wearing blue, FedExForum was a stress-free zone.

And that’s fine. All the gaudy stats were nice, too, including Memphis making a season-high 12 shots from 3-point range (12-for-19, 63.2 percent) and rediscovering the value of going through the post first as freshman Austin Nichols scored 18 points on 8-for-9 shooting, as time and again he was open for a dunk or a layup.

But now that the No. 24 Tigers are in a real league – the American Athletic Conference – the page always must be turned quickly. To their credit, the Tigers did that after their dismal performance and 87-72 loss at SMU last Saturday.

“We didn’t let the loss soak in that much,” Nichols said. “We just forgot about it and moved on.”

Now 17-5 and 7-3 in the league, the Tigers are a curious team. They possess good wins over ranked Oklahoma State and Louisville teams. But they also own a bad loss to OSU and double-digit defeats to UConn and Cincinnati when they were not ranked; those losses perhaps look less troubling now.

Still, this coming Saturday night’s game with No. 23 Gonzaga is a rather big deal. Especially with ESPN’s College GameDay crew setting up in FedExForum’s Grand Lobby. The show starts between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. Saturday, with live segments airing on SportsCenter. From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., College GameDay is televised on ESPNU, and then moves to ESPN from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Admission into FedExForum’s Grand Lobby is free, and the show is open to the general public. Doors open at 6:30 a.m., which is when Pastner hopes Tiger Nation will arrive in large numbers.

“It’s an opportunity to pack the place out,” the coach said. “Let’s have a rowdy crowd at 6:30 in the morning. It’s tremendous exposure for the city of Memphis and the University of Memphis. You know, GameDay might want to come back here next year.”

But for this year, it is this team’s best chance to impress.

“It’s a statement game,” guard Geron Johnson said. “We can show the world what we can do.”