On Sunday, Arizona was awarded a 5-seed by the NCAA tournament committee, and will face 12-seed Memphis this coming Friday in Tulsa, OK. Historically, the 5/12 match-up is where many feel upsets are likely to occur. This, combined with other notable twists of fate, is the reason that this game is one of the most intriguing contests of the opening weekend.
The 33 year-old head coach of the Memphis Tigers is none other than Josh Pastner, a University of Arizona alum, former player, and assistant coach under legendary Lute Olson. It just so happens that Pastner was a part of Arizona's 1997 Championship team, with teammates Miles Simon, Jason Terry, and Mike Bibby, among others.
"Arizona, obviously, that's my alma mater, but I bleed blue and gray," Pastner said. "That's the bottom line."
While he must publicly acknowledge his loyalty to his current team, the Houston native surely is less than thrilled to face Sean Miller and the Arizona Wildcats in the first game of the tournament. Pastner is fully aware of what type of difficulty this Arizona team presents.
"I voted Derrick Williams as the national player of the year," Pastner said. "I've watched a lot of Arizona games on TV because it's late at night on the tube, and I think Derrick's one of the best, if not the best, in the country. That's the respect level I have for Derrick Williams."
Due to his apparent familiarity with Williams and the entire Arizona squad, it will be interesting come Friday to see what game plan coach Pastner employs to try to slow down the dominant sophomore. Will he follow suit with the rest of the Pac-10 and throw a zone defense at the Wildcats? Or, will he put his own players' athleticism to the test and play straight man-to-man?
Regardless of his decision, the Arizona staff should feel confident that their team could handle anything the Tigers come up with. Derrick Williams has stifled countless defenses this season, as he has tallied a remarkable 11 double-doubles and scored more than 20 points on sixteen different occasions this year.
Instead of worrying about what the Tigers will or will not do, Arizona would be better served spending time on the aspects of which it has control. This game should come down to basic fundamentals of basketball.
First, can the Wildcats limit turnovers and capitalize on opportunities? Sean Miller's squad enters the game ranked 3rd-worst in the Pac-10 in turnovers with 437 on the year, averaging close to 13 per game. Arizona must take care of the basketball and not give the Tigers easy points off mental mistakes.
The biggest area in which the Wildcats need to capitalize is at the free throw line. Arizona found itself losing the conference championship game after shooting just 66.7% from the charity stripe. It is important that the Wildcats who posted the best free throw percentage in the conference, at 74.7%, show up in Tulsa this week.
Second, can Arizona win the rebounding battle? It will hurt Arizona's chances if the Tigers are able to get two or three scoring attempts per possession. Arizona is 21-0 on the season when winning the rebound category, and it will be important for that to continue if it hopes to move past Memphis. If the Tigers play a zone defensively, this becomes even more of a necessity.
Third, can Arizona keep Derrick Williams involved? While uncommon, there have been a few games this season where some wondered if Williams was even on the court – luckily he wore a hot pink hand-wrap so he could be identified. This must not be the case on Friday when the Tigers should have no answer for the Pac-10 Player of the Year.
His teammates must find a way to get him engaged on the offensive end, which will help create opportunities for everyone throughout the game. It is not critical that Williams end with another double-double, but rather he needs to become a focal point that keeps the Tigers' defense occupied.
It can be argued that Memphis has better overall talent than Arizona, if comparing recruit rankings of the past few seasons. However, the Tigers will arrive as a young team that can be inconsistent, and often play undisciplined basketball. It does not have lights-out shooters or a dominant post presence.
While Josh Pastner is a great person and has meant a lot to the Arizona program over the years, the Wildcats boast a more proven head coach in Sean Miller and will bring one of the best players in the nation to the panhandle state.
The Wildcats really could not have asked for a more favorable first-game match-up than the Memphis Tigers. If Arizona can learn from its mistakes in the Pac-10 tournament, it has a great chance of preventing the all-too-common 5/12 upset and instead, advancing to play on Sunday.
Pastner may even cheer them on – privately, of course.