KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The knee-jerk reaction would be to panic – or, if you're a critic of the Memphis Tigers, to laugh.
John Calipari's team opened the NCAA tournament Thursday with an 81-70, closer-than-the-score-indicated West Region victory over 15th-seeded Cal State Northridge, and when it was over, more than a few folks walked out of the Sprint Center with the same three complaints about Memphis that we've heard all season long.
1. The Tigers are overrated.
2. They amassed their gaudy win total in a weak Conference USA.
3. Their No. 2 seed in the West Region is way too high.
Thursday's game against the Matadors was Memphis' first chance this postseason to prove all of its naysayers wrong. The Tigers failed. Miserably.
By Saturday, though, it won't matter one bit.
"The first game of the tournament is always the hardest," senior forward Robert Dozier said. "We've struggled with it ever since I've been here. Some people fight nerves. Other guys are overwhelmed because they haven't been though it before. That's what happened to us today, and we still won.
"We'll be fine."
An unbiased fan would have a tough time disagreeing with Dozier. Close as they came to becoming the first No. 2 seed in eight years to lose to a No. 15, it'd be a mistake to think Thursday's close call was a signal that the Tigers aren't capable of the second consecutive Final Four run that so many people expect.
"Maybe [Cal State Northridge] brought us back to earth a little bit," said Calipari, whose team improved to 32-3. "They showed up and started playing, and our guys were like, 'Oh, I didn't know they were this good.'
"They punched us in the mouth, and we were stunned for a while. Maybe we needed that."
There's also the thought that Thursday's close score said more about Cal State Northridge than it did about Memphis. Sometimes crazy things happen in the NCAA tournament. Good teams play great when they have nothing to lose. The basket becomes bigger, the hustle a little more intense.
That certainly was the case Thursday. Northridge trailed just 34-31 at halftime thanks to a zone defense that caught Memphis off guard. Reserve guard Roburt Sallie scored 17 first-half points, but other than Sallie, the Tigers missed 16 of their 21 shots.
"That was the best defense we've seen all year," senior guard Antonio Anderson said. "They were small and they extended their zone. They were getting in our passing lanes. We just had to settle down."
The Matadors wouldn't let them.
Pesky as it was early, Northridge was even better in the second half. Bobby Braswell's squad opened the half by making 12 of its first 17 field-goal attempts, including going 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.
To the Matadors, the basket looked like a hula hoop. They weren't just making layups. They were making Kobe shots, LeBron shots, crazy shots.
At one point, with the Matadors leading 62-61, guard Mark Hill drove the baseline, leaped through traffic and spun a reverse layup high off the glass, above the square.
"Even that went in," forward Shawn Taggart said. "When guys are making shots like that with a hand in their face … I mean, sometimes there's just nothing you can do.
"I don't think we underestimated them. We knew they were good. This is a higher standard of basketball right now. It's March. A lot of teams out there that you think wouldn't win … all of a sudden they have a chance."
A lot of teams? Maybe.
The Matadors? Uh, no.
Not after leading scorer Deon Tresvant was kicked off the team in January for allegedly trying to steal $6,600 worth of electronics equipment from Best Buy. Not after starting point guard Josh Jenkins was lost for the season because of injuries sustained in a February car accident. If any team seemed ripe for a first-round blowout, it was Northridge.
"We played with heart," Hill said, "I think they were shocked – just like the rest of the world."
Eventually, of course, things settled down. Northridge had a horrendous stretch in which it went nearly six minutes without scoring, and Memphis capitalized with a 9-0 run that turned a 64-61 deficit into a 70-64 lead.
Any chance of a Matadors victory was lost moments later, when Sallie connected on his 10th 3-pointer of the game. Sallie finished with 35 points – an NCAA tournament record for a Memphis player. Before Thursday, he hadn't scored more than 13 points in a game this season and came in averaging 4.5 points.
"We had to have a guy get 35 for us to win a game," Calipari said.
That probably won't be the case against 10th-seeded Maryland on Saturday. As "skittish" as his team played Thursday, Calipari said he expects – and hopes – the Tigers will be back to their old selves when they take the court against the Terrapins.
"I think we will be," Anderson said. "I'm telling you, the first one is always the hardest. This one is out of the way now. We can't dwell on it. It's time to move on."
- Cal State Northridge
- Memphis Tigers
- John Calipari