AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (CBS / AP) — The questions come seemingly every year for Memphis around this time.
After rolling through Conference USA, the Tigers arrive at the NCAA tournament and a skeptical public wonders whether they’ve really been tested during the regular season.
Coach Josh Pastner has heard just about enough.
“To say that we haven’t been battle tested is ridiculous,” Pastner said Wednesday. “We’ve won 26 straight Conference USA games. Every time we step on the floor, we get everyone’s best shot. That means if we’re playing East Carolina, they have a gold-out. If we’re playing Marshall they have a green-out.”
The easiest way for Memphis to silence the doubters would be to win in the NCAA tournament, and that’s a goal that’s been elusive of late. When the sixth-seeded Tigers take on 11th-seeded Saint Mary’s on Thursday, they’ll be trying for their first victory in the tournament since 2009, when John Calipari was still coach.
Standing in the way are the Gaels, who are unbeaten since December against everyone but Gonzaga. Saint Mary’s (28-6) beat Middle Tennessee on Tuesday night to advance to the round of 64.
“We know it’s just going to be a physical game, just like Middle Tennessee,” Saint Mary’s guard Stephen Holt said. “In the tough games in a tournament like this, that’s what it comes down to, is consistency, getting stops and just playing hard and aggressive and making plays.”
Memphis reached the NCAA title game in 2008 and went to the round of 16 the following year. Pastner took over after Calipari’s departure and has gone 61-13 in Conference USA games, including the league’s tournament.
In 2011, the Tigers were a No. 12 seed in the NCAA tournament and lost their opener. They lost again last year as a No. 8 seed.
“I recognize people are going to be on me if we don’t advance in the tournament. I recognize that, but I’m OK with that,” Pastner said. “If you ask anyone in our business, in our profession — in fact, (Michigan State coach) Tom Izzo said it on CBS when they were playing Ohio State — a true measure of a team is what you do during your conference play. That’s a tremendous measure if you’ve had a successful season or not because it’s over a two-and-a-half, three-month period.”
Memphis and Gonzaga are the only teams this season that went undefeated in conference play both in the regular season and the league tournament. Gonzaga beat Saint Mary’s three times while sweeping through the West Coast Conference, but the Gaels have built an impressive program of their own, reaching the NCAA round of 16 in 2010.
Matthew Dellavedova emerged from a shooting slump to score 22 points in the First Four game against Middle Tennessee.
“He’s a very smart guard. It seems like he’s been playing the game for a while,” Memphis guard Joe Jackson said. “He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s one of the smarter guys in the country.”
Jackson is Memphis’ leading scorer at 13.6 points per game.
Saint Mary’s has already spent plenty of time traveling. The Moraga school opened the tournament in Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday, then made a quick trip north to Auburn Hills. The Gaels could be fatigued after already playing a game in this tournament — or they could be less rusty than Memphis.
“It’s whatever you make it. We’re going to try and make it an advantage,” Bennett said. “I do like this about it: We hadn’t played in a week, and it would have been 10 days since we played in our conference tournament. … Playing Tuesday shortened that up a little bit.”
Dellavedova averages 16 points per game, one of four Saint Mary’s players in double figures. Guard Jorden Page didn’t play against Middle Tennessee because of a right knee injury, and he isn’t expected back for the game against Memphis.
Guard Jordan Giusti, a redshirt freshman, made his first start Tuesday.
“It’s new, but it wasn’t really that big of a change because I’ve started second halves,” Giusti said. “I’m used to playing. As far as the tournament goes, it’s just another game really for me. I’m not really used to the whole tournament thing, but right now it’s just another game.”
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