“Hangman is coming down from the gallows and I don’t have very long.”
I’ll be the first to admit John Shaw was not talking about basketball when Styx released its legendary hit “Renegade” back in 1978, but that well-known refrain is eerily representative of where Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers find themselves with six games remaining in the regular season.
March is ominously approaching and the selection committee, or in this analogy the hangman, will soon decide on the 68-team field that will comprise this year’s NCAA tournament. For the Tigers, who find themselves on the outside of the bubble looking in, time is running out. Reeling after back-to-back road losses, it is vital they return home and take care of business against East Carolina (10-16, 4-9 American Athletic Conference) at the FedExForum on Wednesday night.
Despite the shoddy record, the Pirates boast wins over both South Florida and SMU, two teams that each beat Memphis on its home floor.
Sophomore forward Jayden Gardner may be the best-kept secret in the entire American Athletic Conference. The Wake Forest, North Carolina native leads the team in both scoring and rebounding, posting stellar 20 and 9.5 averages. Outside of Gardner, the Pirates roster does not feature another double digit per-game scorer. They rank outside the top 100 nationally in team rebounding. They only shoot 28% from three.
The point here is this is a game that Memphis should not lose. While Gardner is surely a serious threat, Memphis cannot afford to lose this game. Every time they take the floor the rest of the way, it is a must-win.
“When it’s close, it lets you know you’re doing things right,” Hardaway said after his team’s 64-61 loss at UConn this past Sunday. “It still comes down to the hustle plays. The second chance points and the points off turnovers are the area that sticks out the most and that’s all we worked on. Controlling the ball, no live-ball turnovers, covering backcourt and boxing out, and we gave up 18 offensive rebounds. That’s how people have been beating us lately.”
Although it seems bleak, the path back to the big dance remains relatively clear. The primary knock on the Tigers’ resume is the lack of quadrant one wins, a metric used by the selection committee to gauge the quality of each team’s wins to better sort them. A quad one win is classified as a home win over a team ranked 1-30, a neutral-site win over a team ranked 1-50 or a road win over a team ranked 1-75.
At 17-8, Memphis sits comfortably above .500. However, in quadrant one opportunities, their record is 1-4. Falling to both Cincinnati and UConn on the road last week was a major missed opportunity to pad their tourney resume. Luckily for Hardaway, his group still has three chances to come away with the coveted Q1 victory: Houston at home this Saturday, at SMU next Tuesday and at Houston to close the season on March 8th.
Realistically, if they go on to win out and avoid flaming out early in the conference tournament, they are a likely candidate for an at-large bid. All they can do for now, however, is continue to fight and take it game-by-game.
Tip-off against the Pirates is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday night at the FedExForum.