MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis likes to call itself Hoop City. Nothing happened to change that distinction on Tuesday. In fact, something happened to further cement the label.
The American Athletic Conference announced its first postseason tournament will be held at FedExForum from March 12-15, 2014. Each game of the 10-team round robin will be televised by the ESPN networks.
Here are three things we learned about the city of Memphis’s newest basketball venture:
1. Memphis is still very much in the basketball business
Conference USA ran through Memphis. When the Tigers bolted for the Big East, some feared it was the end of home postseason activities, with the Tigers playing in some faraway land — like Manhattan.
But that won’t be the case.
“We don’t get the (AAC tournament) without the fans. The reason the (league) basketball coaches, including Rick Pitino, said it needs to be here is because of the fans,” said Memphis coach Josh Pastner.
The (new) Big East tournament, featuring DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Seton Hall, St. Johns, Villanova and Providence, will still be held at Madison Square Garden.
Several places wanted the AAC tournament — Hartford, Atlantic City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Tampa. Officials expect the 18,400-capacity FedEx Forum will be packed for every session.
The field includes national champ Louisville (set to join the ACC for the 2014-15 school year), Memphis (31-5 last year with a strong recruiting class on the way), Connecticut (the 2011 national champs) and NCAA tourney teams Temple and Cincinnati. Central Florida and Houston are coming off 20-win seasons.
And then there’s Rutgers, which has been part of a relentless media firestorm of late. The Scarlet Knights, along with Southern Methodist and South Florida, make up the 10 teams for the conference’s first season.
Pastner expects the AAC crowds will be large, before, during and after Memphis games. The involved teams travel well, but so do local basketball fans.
“The people in this city make this a basketball city,” Pastner said. “It’s bigger than just a game. It’s a mood swing. You win, people are so jacked up. You lose, you’re almost in a little state of depression. It matters to the people.
“Memphis fans are going to come no matter what, because they appreciate high-level basketball,” said Pastner. “Obviously it’s going to help a little bit if Memphis is playing, but just being here, it’s going to create so much excitement.”
2. All coaches in favor of Memphis, say ‘I’
Pastner harped on how many coaches at the league meetings agreed Memphis was the best place to house the tournament, even Louisville’s Pitino, although not present at the meetings.
In fairness, Pitino and the Cardinals are a one-year member before they jump to the ACC. Rutgers will be leaving for the Big Ten after the 2014 season, too.
“He knows they’re going to be leaving the league, and obviously Louisville has great fans as well, but I just think he understood that for the longevity of the league, the best thing is to do it at Memphis because we’re going to be a staple,” Pastner said. He said it’s a no-brainer.
“All those coaches said the tournament should be in Memphis, that’s a direct reflect of credit to the fan base for making this environment what it is. I don’t know too many cities you can count on one hand that have that kind of passion as we do here.”
The coaches may have shared a desire to play in Memphis, but all the pressure will be on one coach. Pastner will be the only coach with players sleeping in their own beds. He already faces one of the country’s most demanding fan bases. Multiply that with the tournament being down the street from his house.
“I’d rather have the pressure than not,” Pastner said. “We’re at Memphis. Our expectations are probably to go 40-0 every year.”
3. FedExForum will be a busy place next spring
Getting the tournament took a lot of cooperation. The Memphis Grizzlies, who could be in the thick of a playoff race next March, had to agree to loan their place and hit the road. The Forum is also scheduled to host the second and third rounds of the 2014 NCAA Tournament’s South Regional.
Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen would love to see the tournament take up a yearly residence here. There is already an option in place for 2015, but it will again depend on cooperation with the Grizzlies.
“We’ve always had a great cooperative relationship with the university,” FedExForum and Grizzlies COO Jason Wexler said. “When this opportunity was presented, it did require us to juggle our schedule. It’s definitely, from an NBA perspective, tough to give up a couple of home games in March; but at the same time, these kinds of opportunities only come up so often. It required some coordination. We’re good at that.”