NCAA Tournament: Why Memphis vs. Arizona Is the Most Intriguing Game

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NCAA Tournament: Why Memphis vs. Arizona Is the Most Intriguing Game
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Imagine if Derrick Williams was a Memphis Tiger. Well, he just about was.

Living in St. Louis, it is not very often that I get to watch quality basketball first hand. So in November 2009, when I saw that the defending national champion, the Kansas Jayhawks, were playing the Josh Pastner-coached Memphis Tigers in the city that I live, I knew I had to go to the game.

The top-ranked Jayhawks were hoping to get the season off to a good start. Kansas fans were still riding high after they beat Memphis in the epic 2009 national championship game. But make no mistake, this Memphis team was not the same one that came within seconds of winning the 2009 title.

Following John Calipari's departure to Kentucky, assistant coach Josh Pastner was promoted to head coach of the Tigers. The move shocked many because Pastner was only 31 at the time.

However, Pastner had been an assistant under Lute Olson at Arizona for seven years and he was even on the '97 team that beat three No. 1 seeds en route to a national title.

For years, the name Pastner was synonyms with Arizona due to his amazing ability to attract some of the top prep talent to play under Olson. When Olson left the program for an extended leave of absence, Pastner knew it was time for him to leave Tucson and make his own mark on the college basketball world.

That brings us back to the Kansas-Memphis game.

It was not the game itself that I will forever remember (Memphis nearly upset Kansas but missed a last-second shot), but the minutes leading up to the game, more specifically when Josh Pastner was walking out onto the court.

Josh Pastner learned under one of the best.

While my family lived in Tucson, my father met Josh Pastner a couple times and always told me how great a guy he was. Pastner doesn't curse and he doesn't even drink caffeine.

On a more personal note, he is also Jewish, therefore making him one of my heroes (sorry Bruce Pearl, you blew your chance long ago).

He is as nice a guy as you will meet and he is persuasive enough to recruit elite high school talent year in and year out.

Back to the game.

My seats were located right next to the entrance where Pastner and the Tigers walked out, which gave my father a perfect opportunity to do something I would never have the guts to do.

"Arizona! Arizona! Arizona!" he chanted.

Pastner, who was standing no more than 10 feet away, quickly turned his head to the familiar words and smiled.

When all of his attention should have been devoted to how Memphis was going to go after Cole Aldrich and the explosive Kansas offense, Pastner's instincts forced him to divert his attention to the chanting of the school he spent over a decade at.

Hopefully this story shows you how close Arizona still is to Pastner's heart and why this game will be filled with emotion for fans of both teams. 

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Josh Pastner (Center) celebrates as Arizona wins the 1997 National Championship

 

Fast forward to Selection Sunday

While Arizona head coach Sean Miller tried to downplay any extra storylines that will almost certainly be mentioned when the Wildcats face off against Memphis on Friday, there was no way for Pastner to avoid the obvious question of whether this game will have added meaning because of who the Tigers are facing.

Most of Pastner's press conference saw him praise Arizona and Derrick Williams, a player that Pastner was almost able to bring to Memphis.

"You know, we tried to recruit Derrick Williams. We even got him here on a visit, and when he left he even had our Memphis background on his phone. We thought we were going to get him," said Pastner.

Pastner probably wishes he had Williams right now but even without the potential top five NBA draft pick, the Tigers were able to find success in the C-USA Tournament, following a rather disappointing season.

The second-year head coach has had to deal with more adversity than some coaches face in their entire career. The Tigers' season has featured injuries, suspensions and even a McDonald's All-American being kicked off the team.

Yet even with all that, Memphis found a way to make a remarkable comeback against UTEP, winning the C-USA Tournament while sealing a bid to the Big Dance.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Can Momo Jones step it up for the NCAA Tournament?

The Tigers are very inexperienced but that is to be expected when four freshmen are starters. Joe Jackson, who had been silent for most of the year, found his stroke against UTEP and he will need to have another big game in order for the No. 12 seed Tigers to beat Arizona.

The Wildcats are also very young and have only one senior, Jamelle Horne, who happened to be recruited by Pastner.

Inconsistent point guard play has prevented Arizona from having more success—although, a 27-7 record along with a Pac-10 title is nothing short of a miracle from Sean Miller, who like Pastner is only in his second year as head coach for the Wildcats.

In order for Arizona to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, Momo Jones will need to step up and Derrick Williams will need to continue being himself. The superstar power forward is averaging 19 points a game, while shooting a ridiculous .603 percent from the three point line, making him one of the most hard to stop players in college basketball.

His draft stock has soared this year and some websites even have him ranked as the top overall prospect in the 2011 NBA Draft.

When the two teams face off on Friday, there will be a mutual respect between the players and coaches. Miller and Pastner aren't very close with each other but according to Pastner, Miller actually called him to seek advice after accepting the head coaching position at Arizona.

Pastner responded to Miller by saying, "Sean, you are going to do unbelievable there."

Indeed Miller has.

The bond between Arizona and Josh Pastner could not be closer. He will always consider himself a Wildcat and Arizona fans will be forever grateful for what Pastner did for them as a player and an assistant.

For one game, Pastner will be forced to root against his alma mater.

For one game, Arizona fans will hope that the former prodigy, who devoted so much of his life to making Arizona the program it is today, does not find success.

But I can promise you that if Memphis does upset Arizona on Thursday, I will be one of many Arizona fans to applaud the amazing job that Pastner has done as head coach at Memphis, even if it comes at the cost of Arizona's title hopes.

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