Majerus plays name game to get Tigers’ attention

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — First, Memphis lost a home game. Then the players lost a piece of their identities.

Frustrated with the way his team played in a loss to UTEP last month, coach Josh Pastner took the players’ names off the backs of their jerseys, in addition to depriving them of any practice garb that said Memphis on it.

And that wasn’t all.

“I locked them out of the locker room,” Pastner said. “I stopped feeding them hot meals — gave them a ham and turkey on white bread and bag of chips.”

It was just one game. But it was also a teaching moment.

“I wanted them to understand it was a privilege and honor (to wear a Memphis jersey) and even one bad game is not acceptable,” Pastner said.

Whether it was that jolt of inspiration or just the ebb and flow of a typical season, the Tigers responded by finishing off a 26-8 season by winning the Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles.

Now they have the No. 8 seed heading into a showdown with ninth-seeded Saint Louis (25-7) today in the second round of the West Regional at Nationwide Arena.

“Coach did that to remind us that we should be playing for the name on the front of our jersey, instead of the names on the back,” leading scorer Will Barton said. “He just wanted us to play for each other.”

Almost everyone thinks the experiment was a success. The Tigers have won seven in a row — by an average of 24 points — since that tide-turning defeat.

Heading into an NCAA Tournament, Pastner summoned up the names of several great Tigers players and coaches — Gene Bartow, Dana Kirk and Larry Finch — to underscore that even after others have moved on, the program continues.

“For anyone to forget that, they just needed to be re-energized to understand,” Pastner said. “Even if it was one game, I didn’t want anything to tailspin from that.”

The Tigers are bigger, faster and more athletic than Saint Louis. But the Billikens have sage old-timer Rick Majerus blustering on the sidelines.

Majerus, who took Utah to the national championship game in 1998 among his 11 trips to the NCAA tournament, will put a disciplined, smart, defensive-oriented team on the court.

He has no allusions about his players intimidating Memphis.

“There’s no pros on this team,” he said simply.

The Billikens will counter all the future pros on the Tigers roster by doing what they do. They have no problem with putting the brakes on Memphis’ up-tempo attack.

“They get most of their points in transition. They like to defend you and turn you over and get up and down the floor. We’re going to send a few more back than normal to kind of stop that, try to make it a halfcourt game,” said guard Kyle Cassity, who sports a full, mountain-man beard. “That’s kind of where we’re at our best.”

The best player for the Billikens is 6-foot-6 forward Brian Conklin, an unassuming kid who averages 13.9 points a game. He will likely be matched up against Memphis’ bruising Tarik Black, a 6-8, 243-pound enforcer in the paint.

“They have a good player in Conklin,” Barton said. “He’s real good. But Tarik is much taller and much stronger. I feel like we have a real big advantage down low with him.”

Conklin, making his first trip to the NCAAs, isn’t awed by the sights and sounds. Well, except for one.

“I thought the police escort was kinda cool,” he said. Then he added, “It’s funny, you need a police escort for two blocks?”

Saint Louis, making its seventh NCAA appearance, is 4-1 on neutral courts, including winning an early-season tournament in Los Angeles in which it beat Boston College, Villanova and Oklahoma to win the title.

The Billikens swear they won’t be afraid of the big stage or the Tigers.

“We’ve played in front of big crowds before,” Conklin said. “There’s just all this extra media attention going on. Your name’s mentioned on ESPN five more times than it normally is during the season. It’s not a big deal. We come out. We know we have Memphis. And it doesn’t matter what the name on the jersey is.”

Given the Tigers’ recent no-name look, that’s a good thing.

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