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VOL. 129 | NO. 56 | Friday, March 21, 2014

Tigers Look to Ace Next Tourney Test

By Don Wade

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Memphis made the Final Four. Seriously, you can stop worrying about the first game this Friday against George Washington University.

The Tigers joined American, Michigan and national champion Dayton in the annual Academic Performance Tournament’s Final Four, as played out by Inside Higher Ed. In this tournament, the winners are based on the Academic Progress Rate, the NCAA’s multiyear measure of a team’s classroom performance.

Joe Jackson and the other Memphis seniors hope Friday’s tournament-opening game isn’t their final appearance in the Tigers blue and gray.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“Let’s not undersell that,” Tigers coach Josh Pastner said. “That’s a great thing.”

And he’s right, it is. But he was also right when he noted that in the round of 32 against Michigan State last year, “They counted rebounds. That’s why they advanced and we didn’t.”

Rebounds might matter greatly again. Memphis (23-9) and the No. 8 seed in the East Region, plays GW (24-8) and the 9 seed, on Friday at 5:55 p.m. Memphis time in Raleigh, N.C. The game will air on TBS.

Assistant coach Robert Kirby has the “scout” on GW.

“Coach Kirby really put an emphasis on their size,” freshman forward Austin Nichols said. “He also said we can outrun them.”

That’s essentially the same scouting report from ESPN.com “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi, who, in a short video on the Tigers’ NCAA fate, described them as “dangerous” and “so athletic.” Lunardi dismissed the Colonials as “not the quickest bunch in this field” and predicted a Memphis victory Friday.

But Lunardi went with Virginia in the next round, saying the Cavaliers’ defense would “shut down” the Tigers and send them home.

Not that anyone at the Finch Center would care what Joe Lunardi or any other expert has to say.

“We got an OK seeding,” Nichols said. “I think everyone in our bracket is beatable. The way we play, I think we can beat any team in the tournament.”

Pace could well dictate outcome. Pastner won’t concede this, saying, “They’re not playing deliberately slow. They’ll get up and down some.”

Yet when asked what team on the Tigers’ schedule the Colonials are most like, he picked Gonzaga. “They’re different,” Pastner said, but both teams are “fundamentally sound.”

And the Tigers’ approach? Probably the same as it has been, with much reliance on the four senior guards – Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Geron Johnson and Michael Dixon Jr. – but a big game needed from forward Shaq Goodwin, who has been inconsistent of late.

“We are who we are,” Pastner said. “They’re gonna zone us, pack it in.”

Guard Maurice Creek (6-foot-5, 195) is GW’s leading scorer with 14.3 points per game. Forward Isaiah Armwood (6-foot-9 and 208) averages 12.5 points, 8.5.rebounds and 1.6 blocks. And forward Kevin Larsen (6-foot-10, 247, out of Denmark) averages 11.3 points and 7.0 rebounds.

Tigers senior David Pellom played three years at GW before transferring. One of the main reasons he transferred: for a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, a place GW hasn’t been since 2007. Which was why the NCAA Selection Show last Sunday wasn’t a calm experience for Pellom.

“Coming down to the last 16 teams, I was nervous,” he said. “I was thinking, were we ever gonna get called? So then when we got called, I shed a tear. But then 10 seconds later when they said we were playing GW, I got excited.”

The Colonials were 11-5 in the Atlantic 10, and the league put six teams in the NCAA field. The Tigers went 12-6 in the American Athletic Conference, and the league got four teams in the draw (Louisville, Cincinnati and UConn also getting in).

But the Tigers lasted but a game in the conference tournament at FedExForum, losing by 19 to UConn and inspiring much doubt and criticism among fans.

“We’ll be ready to play,” Pastner promised. “I can’t guarantee the outcome; you can come out and say I’ve got six eyes if we’re not ready to play.”

George Washington’s best win was a nonconference victory Dec. 1 over Creighton, which received a No. 3 seed. The Tigers swept Louisville, which received a 4 seed that many onlookers believed should have been higher.

Pellom believes pace will matter.

“Anything that slows us down will be a struggle for us,” he said. “But as long as we keep it at a pace we want, we’ll be fine. The more points we score in transition the better we will be.”

He also pledged the team would be ready.

“After every loss, our next game has been a bounce-back game,” Pellom said. “Getting embarrassed at home, first round of the (AAC Tournament), we want to get the crowd back on our side.”

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