When coach John Calipari arrived at Memphis in 2000, many expected the Tigers to enjoy immediate success.
It took awhile, but Calipari and the Tigers (30-3) have finally delivered, earning the program’s first No. 1 seed and a matchup with 16th-seeded Oral Roberts (21-11) on Friday at Dallas in the Oakland Regional’s first round.
“How about that,” said Calipari, who led Massachusetts to the Final Four in 1996. “The first time in the history of the school with a No. 1 seed. We’re chasing greatness. We’re chasing greatness.”
The Tigers earned the top seed in the Oakland Regional by winning the Conference USA regular season and tournament titles, and by scheduling—and winning—several tough nonconference games.
Memphis previously earned No. 2 seeds in 1982 and in 1985, when it advanced to the Final Four.
“For us to be in a non-BCS league and get a No. 1 seed … it doesn’t happen much,” Calipari said. “It says a lot about what we’ve accomplished this season out of conference.”
Memphis beat UCLA and Gonzaga, the second and third seeds in the Oakland Regional, and lost close games to Duke and Texas, the top two seeds in the Atlanta Regional.
The Tigers are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004, when they lost to Oklahoma State in the second round.
Calipari has taken the Tigers to the tournament three times in the last four years, but this was the season Memphis fans accustomed to greatness were looking for.
“In this city, if you play 30 (games), you need to win 31,” Calipari said. “And that’s fine. I don’t listen to talk radio. I’ve never gotten in a chat room. Wouldn’t know how to get in.”
Memphis has won 19 of its past 20 games, but the overall weakness of C-USA had some questioning whether the Tigers would be given a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
“No matter what, we knew were going to play in the NCAA tournament. I felt we worked hard and our hard work paid off. Now we’ve got to go to the tournament and see what we can do there,” said senior Rodney Carney, the C-USA player of the year.
Carney averages 17.5 points and owns the school record for 3-pointers with 280. The athletic Tigers like to push the tempo, averaging 80.9 points, but also play good defense. Memphis allows opponents to make just 37.8 percent of their shots, third-best in the country.
The Tigers beat Oral Roberts in the first round in 1984, the Golden Eagles’ last tournament appearance.
After a heartbreaking loss in last season’s Mid-Continent Conference tournament, Oral Roberts was just happy to secure a spot in the NCAAs this season.
The Golden Eagles lost to Oakland—which had a losing record—at home in the MCC title game in 2005, and made sure that didn’t happen this season by beating Chicago State 85-72 to earn their first bid in 22 years.
“It’s been a long time,” said Scott Sutton, Oral Roberts’ seventh-year coach and son of Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton.
This marks the first time since 1972-74 the team has made back-to-back postseason appearances, following a berth in the NIT last season.
The Eagles are led by Caleb Green, who averages 20.8 points and 8.9 rebounds. Oral Roberts also has Larry Owens, the Mid-Continent defensive player of the year, and Ken Tutt, who averages 14.3 points.
“Believe me, if a 16th seed thinks they can beat a No. 1 seed, this is the team,” Sutton said.
Memphis leads the all-time series 4-2, but the teams haven’t met since the 1988-89 season.
The winner faces either Arkansas or Bucknell on Sunday.