Despite the fact that this team has not lived up to preseason expectations, nobody is looking forward to playing them. The Tigers (26-8), who finished out of C-USA 26-8 who have remained the team to beat in Conference USA even after John Calipari’s departure to Kentucky, have a combination of youth, athleticism and pro-level talent that is flat out scary. Sophomore guard Will Barton has grown tremendously in his second year with the program. Fellow sophomores Tarik Black and Joe Jackson have improved as well. Highly heralded freshman Adonis Thomas has recovered from in-season ankle surgery just in time to rejoin the team for the postseason. He gives them another incredible athlete who can put the ball in the hole. The Tigers scored 74 points a night and are tough defensively, giving up just 64 points a contest. They struggle when they don’t take care of business on the glass and get baited into shooting the long ball rather than playing to their strength and attacking the basket. They played their best basketball late last season and should be feared by higher-seeded teams.
After a 12-year hiatus, the Billikens (25-7) are finally back in the NCAA Tournament. They closed the regular season out by winning 11 of their last 13 contests. Their rugged defense is hard for a lot of teams to deal with. On the year, they held their opposition to 56 points a night, ranking in the Top 10 nationally. They’re not an explosive team offensively, but they are efficient and capable of getting hot from distance. Senior forward Brian Conklin is their go-to guy, scoring 14 points a game. Junior point guard Kwamain Mitchell is right behind him at 12 points a night while also leading the team in assists with 3.6. With a weak strength of schedule, the Billikens are set to face some of their toughest competition. Fourteen of their regular season wins came against teams outside of the RPI Top 100. They also lost to three teams that fall in that same category.
When the pairings for the NCAA tournament came out last week, most expected the Tigers to receive a respectable seed after rolling thorough Marshall to capture the C-USA championship. Now playing with a chip on their shoulder, they are out to prove that they deserved a lot better than 8th. Memphis will expose their NBA like talent against the Bilikens, who won't be able to keep up in transition relying on a half court slow down tempo. GL