The No. 11 Saint Mary’s Gaels needed a trip to Dayton to cement their place in the Round of 64, but they will head into their Midwest Region opener versus the No. 6 Memphis Tigers looking to make history.
Led by head coach Randy Bennett and star guard Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary’s became the second team to get a victory in the 2013 NCAA tournament, defeating Middle Tennessee on Tuesday. The Gaels have an opportunity to become just the second “first four” team in history to win a second game.
Based on the results of Memphis’ season thus far, it’s going to be awfully tough to make history on Thursday.
Memphis heads into the Big Dance having tasted defeat just once since December. Led by head coach Josh Pastner, the program is finally starting to etch its own reputation again in the post-John Calipari era. This is by far the best team Pastner has had since taking the Tigers coaching job four years ago, and he will be looking to cap that off with his first NCAA tournament victory.
Bennett and his Gaels already got their first victory, but satisfaction is for the weak in March. Memphis is in for a fight against Saint Mary’s and it should be one of a bevy of games worth watching on college basketball’s unofficial national holiday.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know about Thursday’s Round of 64 clash.
Where: The Palace at Auburn Hills in Auburn Hills, Mich.
When: Thursday, March 21, at 2:45 p.m. ET
Live Stream: March Madness On Demand
Betting Line: Will be added once it becomes available.
Memphis Injuries (via USA Today): None.
Saint Mary’s Injuries (via USA Today): G Jorden Paige, Knee, Day-to-Day. F Tim Williams, Leg, Out
What's at Stake?
Other than everything these players and coaches have worked for since diapers, not all of that much is at stake on Thursday. Of course, I'm kidding—everything is at stake.
Who will win?
For Memphis, the stakes are pretty simple. The Tigers don't want to get upset, and they especially don't want to be the first low seed sent packing in this year's tournament. Considering the relatively early start time and lack of upset-worthy games in the early afternoon, Memphis could possibly be the team with an unfortunate result.
Saint Mary's, meanwhile, has a chance to make history with a win in Thursday's matchup. Ever since the NCAA expanded the tournament field to 68 teams, only one team (Virginia Commonwealth in 2011) has ever won a "first four" matchup and then gone on to beat its second round opponent. That VCU team went on to a Final Four appearance and nearly made the national championship game.
Few would even remotely suggest the Gaels are on the VCU path to Cinderella stardom. But then again, even fewer would have suggested it for Shaka Smart's squad two years ago.
Players to Watch
Memphis: G Joe Jackson
Despite scoring 22 points, grabbing nine rebounds and dishing four assists in a nationally televised conference championship game on Sunday, Joe Jackson remains a virtual unknown to mainstream audiences. When thinking of Memphis, most think of the team-wide buy-in—not the player who makes everything tick on both ends.
Jackson heads into the NCAA tournament averaging 13.6 points, 4.8 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game. Those are fine all-around numbers, and Jackson leads the team in assists and points.
What makes Jackson such a strong player overall is his efficiency. Jackson is making 52.7 percent of his shots for the season, including 45.6 percent from deep and a true shot percentage (62.4) that ranks just outside the nation's 50 best, per Ken Pomeroy. He's a smart, veteran leader who could stand to reduce his turnover rate, but nonetheless remains Memphis' best overall player.
That being said, Jackson is not immune to throwing a clunker on the scoreboard. When the junior guard's game is off, it's not just bad—it's potentially crippling. Jackson has seven games this season when he scored 10 or fewer points. Those games help represent two of Memphis' losses this season and came against the likes of VCU and Minnesota.
Jackson still has his calling-card 23-point game against Louisville to keep him from getting a reputation as a player who can only excel against bad teams, but his performance bears watching. He's a great talent, and Memphis can ill afford a clunker at any point in March.
Saint Mary's: G Matthew Dellavedova
Fresh off a clunker of a performance versus Gonzaga in the WCC championship game, Dellavedova was bound and determined to not repeat those struggles in his final NCAA tournament. The senior guard continually broke the formerly impenetrable Middle Tennessee press, getting easy shots for himself and teammates en route to a 22-point, six-rebound, four-assist effort.
Those types of ascendant nights have become par for the course over Dellavedova's career. He's averaging a shade under 16 points and over six assists per game, taking advantage of his top-notch shooting ability and court vision to make things look easy offensively.
Among players who use 24 percent or greater of his team's possessions, Dellavedova has been the 14th-best offensive force in all of college basketball, per Ken Pomeroy. He also has one of the better assist rates in the country and—perhaps most impressively—plays more than 90 percent of his team's minutes this season.
With apologies to Stephen Holt, Beau Levesque and Brad Waldow, they are just secondary players in Dellavedova's show. Dellavedova is Dave Grohl, and those three players are whoever else is in the Foo Fighters—I have no idea.
That power, or level of importance rather, comes with expectations. Dellavedova performed admirably against what seemed like a tough opponent the first time around, but will be facing off against an even more athletic team on Thursday. But with his performance versus quality teams this season leaving much to be desired, Dellavedova should still be in "prove it" mode—even after his flat-out brilliant offensive execution versus Middle Tennessee.
Key Matchup: Memphis' Defensive Intensity vs. Saint Mary's Brilliant Offense
Breaking down more individual players in this section would be a disservice to the players surrounding stars Dellavedova and Jackson. Each of those players has an opportunity to step up as Holt did in the first round and are overall very good, talented guys.
The problem is that they’re part of a better whole that merits an extensive breakdown.
Heading into Thursday’s game, Saint Mary’s has one of the more underrated and efficient offenses in the nation—and that’s not all thanks to Dellavedova.
The result is an offense that runs like an unstoppable machine. Saint Mary’s ranks 11th in the nation in overall offensive efficiency, 16th in effective field goal percentage and 13th at making two-point shots, per Ken Pomeroy. The Gaels’ only contemporary among double-digit seeds in the entire tournament is Iowa State, and their defense is one giant sieve. On the other hand, Saint Mary’s is no peach, but ranks a very passable 68th in the nation in efficiency.
Almost the polar opposite is true for Memphis, which needs a rotation of eight player to get 17 or more minutes per game to run its defensive system. The Tigers are filled to the brim with athletes, human gazelles who can leap and bound all over the floor and frustrate opposing ball-handlers.
The result is a defense that ranks a sterling 20th in overall efficiency, per Pomeroy. Utilizing those athletes’ quick hands and leaping ability, Memphis ranks as a top-20 team in blocked shots and steals while forcing a better-than-average turnover rate as well.
And, to boot, the Tigers somehow manage to keep that defensive intensity despite running at an adjusted tempo of 69.7 possessions per game, 28th in the nation.
That’s opposed to Saint Mary’s, which runs a below-average tempo at 64.8 possessions per game. Whichever side is able to keep its pace and style at the forefront will have a great opportunity to win this game.
Heading into the tournament, I had Middle Tennessee winning in the first round versus St. Mary's. When scouting the matchup, I had the feeling that the Gaels could not handle relentless on-ball pressure and would fold into a turnover-heavy machine.
Early in Tuesday’s game, that feeling proved correct. The Gaels started with a few turnovers, went on elongated scoring droughts and struggled against Middle Tennessee’s on-ball defense.
Then they adjusted and took off, dominating almost the entire last 30 minutes of the contest.
Look for something similar to happen on Thursday. Memphis has a massive athleticism advantage and will look to utilize it by pressuring on the ball and forcing turnovers. The Tigers don’t run a similar press system to Middle Tennessee, so it will take an adjustment for Saint Mary’s—and once again the Gaels will pull it off.
Memphis will have a better time than Middle Tennessee scoring points, but the team won’t quite get enough. Saint Mary’s advances and becomes one of the teams to watch heading into the Round of 32.
Final Score Prediction: Saint Mary’s 73, Memphis 71
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