Following the Tigers' 83-57 win against Marshall in the Conference USA tournament championship, third-year coach Josh Pastner lobbied for a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament. After all, he said, the Tigers played the tough non-conference slate and won C-USA running away.
As it turns out, Memphis wasn't remotely close. The Tigers were placed in the West region as an 8-seed and will take on 9-seed Saint Louis at the Columbus, Ohio site on Friday at 5:50 p.m.
When sophomore guard Will Barton first saw the match-up, he thought it was a flub on the producer's part.
"I was shocked," Barton said. "When they showed the 8-seed, I thought they were gonna have somebody else. I'm looking for a 5, 6, or 7 (seed). That's when we're getting our name called. Then I saw Memphis, and I was like, ‘That's a mistake, that's a mistake.'"
Unlike last season when the Tigers needed the C-USA tournament to sneak into the field of 68, there wasn't a sense of being satisfied with just making the tournament. If anything, the team felt slighted by the lower-than-expected seed.
"Memphis doesn't get the respect it deserves," sophomore forward Tarik Black said. "Memphis has been putting in many, many years of diligent work during tournament time, especially when Coach (John) Cal(ipari) was here. Memphis has been putting in work.
"We've been in Final Fours, we've been in Sweet Sixteens, Elite Eights. Really, we've been in just as many as some of these programs around the country, if not more. But it's just a part of being a Memphis Tiger, and we accept it wholeheartedly."
Memphis was ranked a top-15 team in the preseason but got off to an underwhelming — relative to its expectations — 6-5 start. The Tigers dropped out of the Top 25 after a home loss to Murray State on Dec. 11 and never found their way back into the rankings.
But despite losing two key contributors to injury for extended periods of time, the Tigers have won 20 of their last 23 games and won the C-USA regular season. They dominated the C-USA tournament, winning their three games by an average of 25 points, and finished with a 26-8 record.
The Tigers boast a top 20 RPI. They tested themselves in their non-conference schedule. Their offensive efficiency and overall advanced stats rank up with the best in the nation. They basically met all of the tournament committee's criteria, so by that logic, Pastner said, an 8-seed is too low.
"If our guys don't have a chip on their shoulder now, I don't know what to tell you," Pastner said. "When you win 20 of 23 in the way that we've done it — we perform at our best when there's a chip on our shoulder and when we're backed into the corner a bit. That's just the facts of it."
Pastner said the approach to Friday's game against the Billikens needs to be that of an underdog's. If Memphis were to advance, it would likely face No. 1 seed Michigan State, which defeated Ohio State in the B1G tournament Sunday.
"There needs to be a lot of enthusiasm, but there needs to be a mentality that there's no doubt we're going in as an underdog," Pastner said. "Even though we're an 8-seed, there's an underdog mentality, because without question for us to continue to get the respect as in terms of the way we've played, we're gonna have to keep winning games."
For Black, the only way for Memphis to earn consistent national respect is for the Tigers to bring home a national championship.
"I'm not sure of too many programs that haven't brought a title home that have that national respect," Black said. "That's just something that we're trying to accomplish now."