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An Arizona state of mind: Tigers must maintain survivor mentality against the Wildcats' brawn

By John Martin
On March 16, 2011

  • The Tigers could be at a disadvantage physically against Arizona, but they’re used to the mental hurdle of surviving and advancing. In order to keep that mindset fresh, the Tigers left for Tulsa, Okla., a day earlier than usual. David C. Minkin

At the most important juncture in the season, University of Memphis men's basketball coach is running on four days without sleep.

"After the game (against UTEP), you're just on an adrenaline rush and you're not sleeping, and then Sunday we find out who we're playing and you've got media to do and then you've also got to watch film. As we get a little close and we've kind of put our gameplan in, I'll try to get a few hours here and there."

In the days leading up to his first NCAA tournament game as a head coach, Pastner's mind isn't exactly sharp. But against the physical No. 5-seed Arizona Wildcats, the Tigers just might boast a cerebral advantage.

The Tigers had to win three games in the Conference USA tournament just to get into the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats, who were the regular season Pac-10 champions, lost in the Pac-10 tournament final but still received a comfortable 5-seed.

"I think that (mentality) helps us a lot, because going into the conference tournament we knew we had to go to the championship and win all those games or we probably wouldn't be in the situation we are in now," freshman guard Will Barton said Sunday.

Pastner said he couldn't speak on Arizona's behalf but that the Tigers are accustomed to having their backs against the wall.

"That's not just for us, that's for every team you're playing at this point," he said. "Both teams are going to have a sense of urgency and you kind of survive and advance or you're going home."

While the NCAA tournament craze has complicated Pastner's sleep cycle, he said he's still preparing for the Wildcats as if it's just another game.

"You want to make sure you're prepared and this is that time of the year where you're just going to have to grind it out," Pastner said. "On the other hand, you just have to make sure you're sharp and fresh."

In order to refine their mental focus, Pastner and the Tigers (25-9) left three days early for the C-USA tournament in El Paso last week and ultimately earned a trip to the NCAA tournament after beating UTEP, 67-66, in the C-USA title game.

They left Tuesday night for Tulsa, Okla., in hopes that a second consecutive early arrival can render similar results.

"It's good for us, because you've got nothing to do but just talk to each other for a couple days," Pastner said. "There are a lot of opportunities to build and grow as a team."

Getting to the tournament site a few days early, however, isn't just a psychological benefit for the underdog Tigers.

"The first day of practice (in the C-USA tournament), everybody was dog tired after just warming up," freshman forward Tarik Black said. "Things we do here to warm up — things we have fun doing — down there, we were like man, do we still have to go through with practice? Going down there and warming up and having two (extra) days down there, that let our bodies get used to everything that's going on down there."

The Tigers' mental advantage, which is also fed by a growing collective shoulder-chip, could be one of few against the Wildcats. Williams, who Pastner voted as National Player of the Year, averages 19.1 points and 8.1 rebounds while shooting a staggering 60 percent from three. He's also ninth in the country in free throw rate according to KenPom.com.

Most national analysts have already conceded a Texas-Arizona second-round matchup in the West region. But a restless Pastner and his players aren't ready to wake up from the dream of a national championship this season just yet.

"It's survival mode now, and going into the NCAA tournament — if we lose, we're out," Barton said. "And no one wants to leave."


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