The Arizona Wildcats will take on the Memphis Tigers on Friday, in a matchup of recent powerhouses trying to regain their mojo.
Prior to missing the big dance last season, Arizona had made the tournament 25 consecutive seasons. Meanwhile, Memphis made the tournament every year from 2000-2009, before failing to reach the tournament last season.
The similarities don’t end there: Each school watched their long-tenured and successful head coach walk away after the 2009 season and are now in the second year with their respective replacement coaches.
Arizona head coach Sean Miller coached at Xavier from 2004-2009, during which he led the Musketeers to four NCAA tournaments, including an Elite Eight appearance in 2008.
Josh Pastner, the coach of Memphis, is in just his second year total as a head coach, making his first appearance in the NCAA tournament. Ironically, Pastner, was a graduate assistant at Arizona, having been mentored by Arizona legendary coach Lute Olson for a number of years.
This season, Arizona won the Pac-10 regular season crown, going 14-4 in conference and nearly won the Pac-10 tournament, coming up short against Washington in the conference championship finale.
In that game, Washington guard Isaiah Thomas hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to clinch the Pac-10 title.
Despite the loss, Arizona, the No. 5 seed in the Western region, is still the highest seeded team in the Pac-10.
Arizona has been carried by forward Derrick Williams, who is having a sensational year for the Wildcats, averaging 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds. Williams has been extremely efficient this season, shooting 61.5 percent from the field, including an incredible 60 percent from behind the three-point line. He is the only Wildcat averaging double-figure points.
Memphis, on the other hand, did not appear tournament-bound as recent as early last week.
Prior to the Conference USA tournament, the Tigers were just 22-9 on the season and right in the middle of the conference standings. However, Memphis pulled things together at the right time, winning three games in three days to win the conference tournament and sneak into the tournament.
Unlike Arizona, which has a clear-cut go to scorer, Memphis does not have a single player averaging more than 12.3 points per game. The Tigers have several young, athletic guards, led by Will Barton and Joe Jackson, and they have shared the ball very well, with nine players averaging at least 6.1 points for Memphis this season.
Memphis likes to keep the tempo high, which could be a challenge for Arizona. This season, the Wildcats have been more of a half-court team than a team that likes to run.
One key matchup to look for will be Arizona's Derrick Williams against Will Coleman of Memphis. Williams is very quick and explosive on the offensive end, so Williams will have his work cut out for him.
As great as Williams has been offensively, he is still learning how to be an effective defender.
Overall, this should turn out to be a very competitive first round matchup between two young, athletic teams.
No matter which team wins on Friday, both Arizona and Memphis appear headed in the right direction and should be even a lot better next season.
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