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NCAA Tournament Preview West Region – First Round (12) Memphis vs. (5) Arizona

Friday, March 18 – Approximately 2:45 PM ET

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Arizona, regular season champion of the Pac-10, received the five seed after a 27-7 season that ended with a heartbreaking overtime loss in the Pac-10 Tournament title game to Washington on Isaiah Thomas's buzzer-beating jumper. The Cats are coached by Sean Miller, who is in his second season with the team. The Wildcats, who had made 25 consecutive NCAA Tournaments from 1985 through 2009, missed out last year in Miller's first season. A rebuilding program lost program patriarch Lute Olson to health-based retirement and faced defections of players who were supposed to maintain the Arizona name. In 2010, the Wildcats were able to scrape out only 16 wins. However, their rebuilding plan was accelerated this season; they raced to their first regular-season conference title since 2005. This trip to Bracketville is Zona’s first since 2009, when the U of A won two games. It’s the team’s first trip under Miller, a seasoned upper-tier coach who has made four previous trips to the Big Dance, all with Xavier.

The process of renewal in Tucson has been led by forward Derrick Williams, who averaged 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, shooting a blistering 61.5 percent from the field and 60 percent from downtown. Williams is the only player scoring in double figures for the Wildcats. The team ranks 25th in the nation by averaging 76.5 points per outing, carried by shooting 47.1 percent from the field as a team (also ranked in the top 25). Aside from Williams the Cats have three other players who hit at least 40 percent from long range; the team's 39.9-percent mark puts Arizona at 10th in the nation.

Like Arizona, Memphis had become a NCAA tournament regular before missing out last season, though the 10 straight seasons the Tigers made the Dance constitute less than half of the run Arizona produced. After undergoing a coaching change last season, Memphis failed to make the tournament under coach Josh Pastner. This season seemed to be going the same way as late as March 2, after the Tigers lost a second straight game - including a 27-point loss at UETP. The Tigers picked it up after that, beating Tulane and then winning the C-USA Tournament title and guaranteeing themselves a NCAA Tournament bid. The amazing aspect of Memphis’s C-USA run is that the Tigers, once beaten by 27 at UTEP, turned things around by winning the C-USA final on UTEP’s home floor. The Tigers, down by 12 points with five minutes left in regulation, somehow found a way to pull out a last-second win.

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Pastner's team, the seventh youngest in the nation, got him to 49 wins faster than any coach in Memphis history. Will Barton is the only player averaging double figures in points, at 12.3 per contest, but three other players average at least 9 points and nine players average at least 6 points. The Tigers rank in the middle of Conference USA in most offensive categories and are just barely above 200th in the nation in most defensive categories. While the Tigers have spent most of the season struggling on the glass, they out-rebounded every team during their four-game winning streak that culminated in the stunning come-from-behind win over UTEP. The Tigers will be in a battle with the Wildcats - neither team rebounds particularly well, but the Wildcats also are top 20 in the nation in keeping their opponents off the boards.

The game will come down to who gets stops. Memphis is going to have to stop Williams. He is the engine of the Wildcat offense, and the team goes as he goes. Meanwhile, Arizona must find a way to clamp down on the Tigers’ talented young guards, starting with Barton and especially Joe Jackson, who was named the MVP of the Conference USA Tournament that propelled Memphis to this point in the first place. 

The most delicious aspect of this game is the fact that Pastner, the Memphis boss, will be facing the team that gave him his start in the coaching business. Pastner was a graduate assistant to Lute Olson at Arizona and was mentored by the man who basically built the Wildcat program from scratch in 1983. Now, Pastner will have to beat his old – and dearly beloved – school if he wants to make the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer
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