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Friday, March 16, 2012

March Madness Game Preview: SLU Billikens vs. Memphis Tigers

Posted By on Fri, Mar 16, 2012 at 10:21 AM

Rick Majerus, head coach of the Billikens. Luckily he keeps his players under tighter wrap than he does his boobs.
  • Rick Majerus, head coach of the Billikens. Luckily he keeps his players under tighter wrap than he does his boobs.
I wrote a print edition article this week, looking at the brackets in the NCAA Tournament, doing some complaining about the selection committee's seeding choices, and previewing the road the Missouri Tigers will have to travel -- through the first couple rounds, at least -- if they want to get their name off that list of schools with the most tournament appearances to never make it to the Final Four

I also put a little bit in there about the Billikens of St. Louis University. I talked a little about their season, their seeding, their opponent; basically, the same coverage I gave Mizzou. However, due to the space limitations of print journalism, we had to lose some of the material. The Tigers are the bigger story; they got the full coverage, while most of the SLU section hit the cutting room floor. I felt bad; the Billikens are the localest of local teams for we St. Louisans, but hey, them's the breaks. The Billikens had a very nice season; the Tigers are a top five team nationally. 

Still, in order to try and correct the (very mild), wrong I feel we inflicted upon the Billikens, I thought I should really do a fuller write up on their first-round matchup with the Memphis Tigers. So here you go. 

Oh, and while I'm thinking of it: I know I said 'first round', while the NCAA would have you believe today's games are actually part of the second round. I call bullshit, NCAA. Four play-in games doth not a round make. Play-in games are play-in games. Yesterday and today? This is the first damned round. 

Anyhow, pointless stands aside, the Billikens are going to have their hands full when they play Memphis today. Honestly, I don't give them much of a chance. But you know what? I'm terrible at picking NCAA teams. Seriously. Just god awful. I've never won a pool in my life, not even the time I decided to do the girl-from-the-office-who-doesn't-know-anything-about-sports route and pick teams by which school I would rather visit on vacation. Still lost my ass. On the other hand, I stand by my selection of a Beer State/University of Breastingham final in that particular tournament. It should have worked out, damn it! 

In other words, relying on me to pick teams come March is a terrible idea. I can, however, talk ad nauseum about the reasons why one might wish to pick a particular team. 

First off, the Billikens don't have the talent to play straight-up against the Tigers if they let Memphis dictate the pace of the game. Memphis the program, built to a national powerhouse by John Calipari, was defined under his guidance by spectacular athleticism and a style of basketball which took full advantage of that athleticism. The Memphis Tigers of 2012 don't have quite the same level of physical talent, but they aren't far off. This is still a team, and program, with world-class talent. I feel they are significantly under-seeded here; they should have been a five or six instead of an eight. 

What the Tigers can do is beat you up and down the court with their size, their speed, and their athleticism. You get into a transition game with Memphis, and you will go home. They have weapons, athletes, to match up against virtually any team in the country. What they don't always have, however, is discipline to match; head coach Josh Pastner infamously had the names taken off the backs of his team's jerseys this year after a frustrating loss to the University of Texas at El Paso to teach his squad a lesson. 

The Tigers have the horses to play transition with anyone and defend with the same kind of tenacity; the defense doesn't come nearly as easily to this group as scoring does. They play tight on the defensive end, and they generate more than their fair shares of takeaways as well, but going for the steal and the sprint every single play means the Tigers are prone to being caught out of position. Think of it as a risk/reward sort of defense; if they get the steal, they're going down the floor for a quick two. If you can take care of the ball, they don't come up with all that many straight stops. 

In most ways, SLU is almost in complete contrast to Memphis; the fact both teams represent cities known for barbecue consumption may be the sole real similarity between them. Rick Majerus's bunch doesn't have a pro on the floor. The Billikens' best player is Brian Conklin, a forward who at 6'6" is giving up two inches of height and two miles of athletic ability to Memphis' big post presence Talik Black. It could be the key matchup of the game; if Conklin can hold his own against Black on both ends of the floor the Tigers' attack will lose much of its potency. Jordair Jett, SLU's sixth man, may be the perfect embodiment of what this team is all about: he doesn't put up big numbers, and he's probably never going to be a lottery pick for the NBA, but he plays with the ferocity and tenacity of a pitbull with a New York strip in its jaws. He plays defense like the player he's guarding knocked up his girlfriend. 

And that's really what the Billikens are going to try and do here. Rick Majerus teams aren't always the most talented, but they play disciplined, defensive basketball that can frustrate the very best opponents. In a way, Majerus teams are much like the teams put together by Mike Anderson, the former Missouri coach who left just this past offseason. Both teams rely on airtight defenses and a disciplined system to do more with less talent; the difference is Anderson's teams played a punishing full-court press and tried to speed the game up to breakneck pace, while Majerus wants his players (at least this SLU iteration; his Utah teams were known for a much more uptempo approach), working the half-court all game long and limiting the number of possessions as much as possible. 

SLU will try to slow Memphis down, clog up the lanes, and turn the game into a half-court affair. The Billikens can score, averaging almost 70 points per game this season, but they get better and better the lower the final score is. The Billikens play a game somewhat analogous to that other midtown St. Louis team, the Blues. Both teams grind. They wear the opposition down. They strangle. 

The Billikens' best chance to beat Memphis is to keep the final in the 50s. If the score at the end of the game says 58-53, I think there's a pretty good chance SLU is moving on. If the scoreboard reads 77-70, I would lay money the Tigers are on the high side of that game. 

At the very least, the game should be an entertaining contrast of styles. You have the wide open, uptempo Memphis attack, going for steals, running up and down the court, and trying to bait the other team into a track meet. On the other side you have the gritty, hard-nosed discipline of the Billikens, led by the old master on their bench. Using every ounce of the clock they can and forcing the other team to do the same, dividing the court into two distinct halves and trying to grind their opposition to a standstill. 

In the end, I think Memphis is just too talented for SLU and moves on. I think this was a bad draw for the Billikens, who pulled an immensely talented team that really should have been seeded a couple spots higher. The more I think about the game, though, the more I think the Billikens have at least a puncher's chance. 

Tip off is at 5:50 Central. 

Final Prediction: Memphis 72, St. Louis 65 

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