- Myron Medcalf, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio – The fun continues at Nationwide Arena on Friday night with an appearance by a 1-seed and an 8-9 matchup featuring two squads that play opposing styles. Memphis is fast. St. Louis is slow. Which style will dictate the tempo? Michigan State is relying on its new chemistry as it enters a game against Long Island.
No. 9 Saint Louis (25-7) vs. No. 8 Memphis (26-8), 6:50 p.m. ET
If Rick Majerus’ demeanor was any reflection of his team’s mood entering its Friday matchup against Memphis, the Billikens will be in good shape. He drew laughs for the bulk of his news conference and appeared to be quite relaxed.
Majerus cracked jokes about Twitter: “I can’t see this Twitter thing … you know, 'Just went to the beach, the water was wet.' You know, I mean, it’s like what is that?”
Majerus also talked about a recent health situation in which he mixed up his medication and missed a game as a result: “And so I’m sitting there, and of course they want you to go to the hospital. And they’re saying, ‘Well, what pills did you mix up?’ I said I wasn’t trying to, you know ... the team hadn’t been playing that bad that I wanted to go south, you know.”
His players seemed just as serene as they talked about their tough matchup against the Tigers, a team that’s ranked 19th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings and 11th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
They’re one of the fastest teams in the country and can run with anyone.
And that’s what the Billikens want to stop. St. Louis is one of slowest teams in the country (No. 303 in adjusted tempo). It hopes to use its rugged style to its advantage when it faces Memphis.
“It’s definitely going to be getting more guys back and getting kind of packed in the lane and then building out from there,” said St. Louis standout Brian Conklin (13.9 points per game). “So definitely going to stop their early transition and make sure they use all 35 seconds of the shot clock, and we have to box out.”
The Billikens have one of the top defenses in the country (No. 10 in Pomeroy’s ratings). Their slow tempo didn’t stop them from finishing second in the Atlantic 10.
But the Tigers are a special group with elite athleticism. They have weapons in every spot. Will Barton, Joe Jackson and Tarik Black anchor a team that’s shooting 49.4 percent from the field, fifth in the nation.
And now they’ve reached a point where players have accepted their roles, which has led a new level of chemistry for this talented group that says it’s ready for the Billikens.
“They’re a solid team. They play as one. They’re not a team that’s going to shoot themselves in the foot. They don’t turn the ball over much,” Black said. “They have good players.”
No. 1 Michigan State (27-7) v. No. 16 LIU Brooklyn (25-8), 9:20 p.m. ET
They all laughed at the question.
“Well, it was funny. We did all kind of laugh because we were instructed not to talk about last year,” Thornton admitted.
Last year was an abrupt change from the program’s two previous seasons.
The 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons ended with Final Four appearances. Last year’s campaign ended with a second-round loss to UCLA.
The summer before the 2010-11 season saw various team members undergo six major surgeries. But Thornton suggested that the problems extended beyond injuries.
“So a lot of things in the last couple years, especially even last year, just guys had minds elsewhere. It wasn’t entirely focused on the success of this program, and that’s what is different and what’s special about this year’s team,” he said. “Everyone bought in and understands what’s best for them is what’s best for this program and is what’s led to the success we had this year.”
The Spartans will need that bond to help them get through a region that features a variety of athletic teams. Missouri, Florida, Memphis, Marquette and Murray State make the West region one of the most competitive in the field.
“I think the advantage is everything’s almost similar," said All-America candidate Green. "So where some nights in the NCAA tournament you may go from playing against somebody who just may run a Princeton-style offense and then the next night to maybe playing someone who hardly runs any offense or just run all motion or they really run and gun for the most part.”
First, however, the Spartans have to take care of LIU Brooklyn, a team that won the Northeast Conference tournament.
That duo has to avoid foul trouble for the Blackbirds to have a chance at the upset.
“I feel like every game this year, if me and Julian [are] on the bench, it will hurt this team,” Olasewere said. “So going into this one, with I guess, the style of play … physical, we have to just play with our hands straight up and try hard not to foul.”
But they also have talented perimeter players such as Appling and Brandon Wood.
In the tournament, however, anything is possible.
On Thursday, UNC Asheville came close to becoming the first-ever 16-seed to beat a 1-seed when it pushed Syracuse for 40 minutes. But Blackbirds coach Jim Ferry doesn’t think UNC Asheville’s effort did his team any favors.
“That’s not very good for the Blackbirds, because if Michigan State was looking away a little bit that might have woken them up a little bit,” he said.