The eigth-seeded Memphis Tigers square off with the ninth-seed George Washington Colonials Friday from Raleigh, North Carolina in what looks to be one of the NCAA East region’s more even opening matchups. Both sides flirted with the top of their respective conferences early in league play, but fell out of contention late and needed to lean on their overall bodies of work and less than ten total losses on the year to get an invite to the big dance.
Memphis’ road to the tourney was rich with ebb and flow. A preseason no. 13 ranking would rise and fall with such regularity, the Tigers would hold thirteen different spots in the Top 25 before finally plummeting from the national rankings following their 19-point loss to UConn in the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament. It was the first time all season Memphis would be without a national ranking. But a strong non-conference slate, highlighted by two games against highly-ranked Oklahoma State and one against a ranked Florida team minimized a marginal 12-6 conference finish.
George Washington’s season was almost as eventful. The Colonials ran through their non-conference schedule, which included dates against Miami, Maryland, Kansas State and ranked Marquette and Creighton teams, behind two different six-game winning streaks to finish 14-2 and negate an 11-5 Atlantic 10 showing that ended with a 19-point blowout loss to VCU in the semi-finals of the conference tournament.
Both teams have also tasted March Madness glory. Memphis is making its twenty-sixth NCAA Tournament appearance, reaching the Final Four three times, the Elite 8 six times, and the Sweet 16 eleven times. But recently, the tournament has not been so kind. Memphis has failed to get past the first round in two of its last three appearances and lost to Michigan State in last year’s second round. Fifth year coach Josh Pastner has taken the program to three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and now hopes to get the Tigers through the second round and into the Sweet 16 for the first time in his tenure.
Although not of the same variety, George Washington has also met with some NCAA Tournament success. The Colonials will make their 11th tournament appearance, their last coming in 2007 when they lost to Vanderbilt in the first round. Second round losses to Duke in 2006, UConn in 1994, and a loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16 in 1993 were the only other times GW has advanced past the first round. Third-year coach Mike Lonergan has transformed a team that started four freshman much of last year into a team with depth. All five of GW’s starters average double-figures in scoring.
If you want a decisive prediction, you’ll probably need a coin. Both sides shoot at a similar clip and both are averaging within 4 points a game of each other. Memphis brings the higher pedigree, but GW comes in the hotter team, having won four of its last five, while the Tigers have dropped three of their last five. This game could very well come down to what happens behind the arc. Memphis held its conference opponents to 30.8 percent from distance, second in the AAC, and George Washington ranks third in the Atlantic 10 in three-point percentage at 36.9. Something has to give there. Memphis spent virtually the entire season in the Top 25 for a reason. They have shown flashes of brilliance in taking out then no. 5 Oklahoma State and even in a two-point loss to Florida, but they’ve also laid a few eggs. Firepower has to go to the Tigers, though, as GW to does not appear to have the guns to run with athletic team the caliber of Memphis. Nevertheless, this should more than likely be one of the NCAA Tournament’s most tightly-contested opening games.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat
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