Daily Journal

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. - Rick Stansbury feels his team is indeed battle tested.

Playing in a league such as the Southeastern Conference, he notes, is certainly a plus come NCAA tournament time.

The SEC is, mind you, one of the toughest leagues in the country and had six teams make their way into the field of 65, including Mississippi State.

Likewise, John Calipari is confident his top-seeded Memphis Tigers are tested too. But not because of his Conference USA slate.

Due to C-USA being one of lowest ranking leagues as far as RPI is concerned, the eighth-year coach deemed it necessary to piece together a rather challenging non-conference schedule.

He did.

A quick glance at the Tigers' opponents reveals the likes of Oklahoma, Connecticut, Southern Cal, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Arizona, Siena and Austin Peay, all teams that garnered a bid to the Big Dance.

And considering no other C-USA team made it to the tournament, playing such a formidable schedule has proven to be pivotal.

"It's all to prepare your team for the NCAA tournament," explained Calipari, whose Tigers play the Bulldogs at 4 p.m. today with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. "When you look at the teams we played in non-conference, there were all different kind of styles.

"UConn had the shot-blocking center. You look at Georgetown and their Princeton-style offense. There's the star power of USC, Gonzaga, Tennessee and Arizona. They were all there for a reason."

The Tigers (34-1) excelled during that stretch, losing only to rival Tennessee in a highly-publicized game featuring a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup. And that's one of the reasons they are a No. 1 seed in the South Regional.

At the same time, freshman guard Derrick Rose said you can't totally dispel Memphis' conference games.

Mainly due to the targets that remained on their backs the entire season. Even Calipari, whose team has advanced to the Elite 8 the past two years, said it was like a Super Bowl for all their opponents.

"Our conference games were tough because they were playing like it was their last game," Rose said. "Any game is going to be tough for us because everybody is coming out, giving us their all."

Still, of their 16 CUSA games, only five were decided by less than 10 points.

That's not the case for the Bulldogs.

Including the SEC tournament, MSU faced that scenario 11 times, winning eight.

That's one of the reasons Stansbury thinks his team will have a chance if the game is tight in the closing minutes.

He just feels there's something to be said for regularly being in those type of circumstances.

"No one has played close enough to them to see how they play in a pressure situation," he said in regards to Memphis. "I think that's our challenge. Can we keep the game close enough that it becomes a close game in the last five minutes? There's no question we've been tested there a lot more than Memphis has.

"No question our league tests us every night. Their league hasn't tested them. That's not a negative for Memphis in any way. It's the league they play in."

Calipari agreed, saying, "He's probably right. But the great thing is we've get to play the game (today). We'll see."

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