Memphis ready for NIT play

By The Associated Press

MEMPHIS — For the first time since 2005 and in Memphis’ first year without coach John Calipari, the Tigers will not be in the NCAA tournament.

They did not hear their names called Sunday when the NCAA bracket was announced, but a couple of hours later learned that they will host St. John’s (17-15) in the opening round of the National Invitation Tournament on Wednesday night.

“It’s a tough field, there’s no question about it,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after the brackets were announced. “Obviously, we wanted to be in the NCAA tournament. But to be able to play in the postseason is a really good thing for us. You look at these NIT games, some are tougher than some of the matchups in the NCAA tournament. I really believe that.”

This will be Memphis’ first NIT berth since 2005 when the Tigers reached the Final Four, where they lost in the national semifinals 70-58 to St. Joseph’s. Overall, Memphis is 19-15 in the NIT, including winning the 2002 championship.

St. John’s, coached by Norm Roberts, finished 6-12 in the Big East. The Red Storm defeated Connecticut 73-51 in the opening round of the Big East tournament, before losing to Marquette 57-55 last week.

“We’ve got a tough game,” Pastner said. “It’s going to be a fun game against a Big East team….As much as I know right now, looking at their stats, they’re a good rebounding team. They’re in the Big East, so they’re a physical team. They’re going to play tough. They’re going to be hardnosed.”

A year ago, the Tigers sat in Calipari’s living room and heard themselves announced as a No. 2 seed for the NCAA tournament. This year in Pastner’s first year, they didn’t gather together with reporters watching just to be snubbed. Calipari watched this year with his new team and picked up another No. 1 seed with Kentucky.

Memphis (23-9) had appeared in four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, including a pair of eliminations in the regional finals and a trip to the national finals in 2008.

Some bad road losses to teams like Massachusetts and SMU this season, coupled with falling to Houston in the second round of the Conference USA tournament — the Tigers’ second loss to the Cougars in about two weeks — doomed Memphis’ chances to anxiously await Selection Sunday.

The Tigers were a couple minutes away from the national championship in 2008. Memphis held a 60-51 lead over Kansas but let it slip away in regulation, eventually losing 75-68 in overtime.

Memphis’ run last year ended when Missouri defeated the Tigers 102-91 in the regional semifinals.

Within days of that loss, Calipari, who took the team to the NCAA tournament in six of his nine seasons at Memphis, left for Kentucky, taking the bulk of the coaching staff and several of Memphis’ prize recruits.

Pastner eventually was pulled from Calipari’s staff of assistant coaches and put in charge of the Tigers. With the graduation of seniors Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier, the departure of freshman guard Tyreke Evans to the NBA and the loss of potential recruits like John Wall and Xavier Henry, there wasn’t much optimism for the young Pastner and the Tigers.

They had much less talent than in the previous years when Memphis not only was expected to reach the NCAA, but high seeds were the norm. Memphis was a No. 1 seed in 2006 and 2008, and seeded second in 2006 and 2009.

The Tigers exceeded the hopes of even the more optimistic Memphis fans by being in the NCAA conversation. Pastner started talking about the success, noting that if he had predicted that record and finishing second in the C-USA regular season, fans would have promised to join him doing flips and handstands along Beale Street.

But the loss to Houston last week — and the Cougars eventually winning the C-USA tournament — made it clear the Tigers postseason would be in the NIT. Still, Pastner didn’t seem disappointed at the result.

“If you told me 11 months ago, we would be in the NIT, I would have told you no way,” Pastner said Sunday night. “Let’s just try to finish .500 and finish in the top half of the league. That would have been a good goal because of what we lost.

“That’s a direct credit to the players. The players did such a good job this year. They gave their hearts out every game.”

For Pastner and the Tigers, playing in the NIT is not a whole lot different than the 2000-01 season, Calipari’s first as Memphis coach. The Tigers went to the NIT that year, reaching the tournament’s Final Four. Memphis returned to the NIT the next season and defeated South Carolina 72-62 to win the championship.

The future might be a bit brighter for Pastner’s second season. His first full recruiting class has been ranked No. 1 nationally for weeks.

If Memphis wins its opening round game against St. John’s, the Tigers would face the winner of Ole Miss and Troy.

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