The Memphis Tigers and Saint Louis Billikens could not be more opposite.
Saint Louis embarks on its seventh trip to the NCAA tournament with the last visit coming in 2000. Memphis has made eight appearances to the Big Dance since 2003 and will be attending for the 24th time.
Meanwhile, Saint Louis coach Rick Majerus is a future Hall of Famer with 516 career wins. Memphis coach Josh Pastner is in his third year of his head-coaching journey, and he has earned 75 victories.
The Tigers are long, athletic and will run with anyone when they’re on top of their game. The Billikens are fundamentally sound and relies on a grind-it-out offense that stems from stingy defense.
Also, everyone knows a Tiger when they see one. But what is a Billiken?
Two programs with drastic differences have one common goal: Advance.
“They’re athletic, long,” Majerus said. “Kind of a UMass on steroids. A variety of scorers, they play good ‘D’, transition. We’ve got to get back, we’ve got to take care of the ball, we’ve got to value the possessions, and we’ve got to be careful of our shot selection.”
“They get up and down really well,” Saint Louis forward Cody Ellis noted. “I think if we control the pace of the game then we should be fine . . . We’ve got to run what’s made us successful this year, and it’s kind of hard to put in some new stuff in such a short amount of time. So basically just running what we’ve been running all year.”
Key Player for Memphis: Will Barton
Barton, the Conference USA Player of the Year, does a little bit of everything for the Tigers. The 6-foot-6 guard leads the team in points (18.1) and rebounds (8.1) and will present a matchup problem for the undersized Billikens. Look for Memphis to push the ball in transition and feed Barton in the open court.
Key Player for Saint Louis: Kwamain Mitchell
The Billikens will look to their junior point guard for more than just scoring on Friday night. The Memphis defense will pressure the ball the length of the court and overplay passing lanes, requiring Mitchell to be the calming force who can keep the Billikens offense flowing.
Key Matchup: Brian Conklin (SLU) vs. Tarik Black (Memphis)
In the Billikens’ loss to Xavier in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, Conklin contributed in scoring 14 points, but he also managed to collect zero rebounds. That stat will have to change if the Billikens want to stay with Memphis. Tarik Black presents a tough matchup down low that will be fun to watch. Conklin has dominated the low post all season long, but don’t expect Black to back down from the challenge.
Prediction: Saint Louis 67 Memphis 63
I look for the Billikens to control the pace and frustrate the Tigers on the defensive end early, causing Memphis to become content with outside jumpers. I can also not bring myself to bet against Rick Majerus with a week to prepare.