Any other year, the Arizona Wildcats (27-7) would probably be disappointed with a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament and a second-round matchup with the 12th-seeded Memphis Tigers (25-9) on Friday in the West Region after winning the Pac-10 Conference regular-season championship. But the Wildcats (-6) are just happy to be back following a one-year hiatus that marked the end of their 25-season streak of making it to the Big Dance.
In reality, the Pac-10 simply was not one of the best conferences in the country and did not merit having more than four teams invited to the NCAA tournament. Even USC was a bit of a stretch as the final team selected from the conference, with UCLA and Washington also joining Arizona.
The Wildcats lost 77-75 in overtime to the second-seeded Huskies in the conference tournament title game on Saturday, as Isaiah Thomas hit the game-winning shot at the buzzer. Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams scored a team-high 24 points and grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds for Arizona, which probably would have earned a better seed with a victory.
One could argue that Memphis is also just happy to be playing in the Big Dance again after pulling off a miraculous 67-66 win over UTEP in the Conference USA tournament championship game. The Tigers entered the conference tourney as the fourth seed and did not lead against the Miners until there were just seven seconds remaining in the game. That is when freshman Joe Jackson made two free throws to finish with a team-high 17 points.
Memphis missed the NCAA tournament last year as well but made the NIT under new head coach Josh Pastner, who was an assistant under former head coach John Calipari. Pastner thrived in his second year with the Tigers, helping his players believe they could win the conference tournament and the automatic bid despite playing on UTEP’s home floor.
This Memphis team is a lot different under Pastner, relying more on gritty defense than the electric offense that surrounded Calipari’s squads. The Tigers have held 12 of their last 13 opponents under 70 points, and the UNDER is 19-7 in their last 26 games. That is a far cry from Calipari’s NCAA tournament teams that went OVER in nine of their previous 10 games.
The Wildcats have played much better defense too under second-year head coach Sean Miller. They are giving up 67.5 points per game and have seen five of their last seven games dip UNDER the total. Similarly to Memphis, the OVER has cashed in seven of Arizona’s past nine NCAA tournament games.
Pick – Arizona