Amidst all the ruckus, the No. 13-ranked Memphis Tigers and James Wiseman will be back in action Tuesday night in Portland when they take on No.14-ranked Oregon in the Phil Knight Invitational. Although it will technically be considered a neutral site, it is not far-fetched to expect a very hostile, pro-Ducks crowd inside the Moda Center.
Wiseman was also named the American Athletic Conference’s Freshman of the week after averaging 22.5 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in his first two games donning a Tigers uniform.
While March remains five months away, this will be as good an opportunity as any for both sides to make an early-season statement that they belong in the field when it comes time for Selection Sunday. For Penny Hardaway and his star cast of freshmen, this will be a great measuring stick game to gauge exactly where they are at this point.
“I feel like we’re doing pretty good,” said pointguard Boogie Ellis. “We’ve just got to really buy in to our defense concepts and not allow offensive rebounds. That’s what it’s going to come down to, and just doing the little things and playing together, knowing that it could be anybody’s night. It’s all about sacrifice with us.”
Despite the national scrutiny from all indications, it seems Wiseman will play. Until the hearings are done and a final ruling has been made, he should continue to do so. That’s the risk that Memphis has rightfully decided to take.
However, in such an intense spotlight, it is important to remember one thing about this team: it is comprised primarily of eighteen and nineteen-year old kids. In the face of immense pressure, it will be interesting to see how they hold up in their first major test of the year.
“We’ll definitely have a great game plan,” Hardaway said. “We’ll try to prepare this young team as much as we can, but obviously when you get to the game, you can’t say what’s going to when you finally get there. All we are going to do is just keep our principles in front of us offensively and defensively. Things are going to be said everywhere but we have to stay focused on what we’re doing.”
With the Tigers deadlocked in their battle with the NCAA for what feels like the foreseeable future, it is worth noting that the Ducks have also had their struggles with collegiate athletics’ governing body.
Star freshman N’Faly Dante, who hopes to become eligible to play in mid-December, will miss this game due to a missed clearance date by the NCAA. While his absence will surely be a loss in the front court, they still feature a talented roster that added the top JUCO prospect in the nation in Chris Duarte along with a pair of ultra-talented wings in C.J. Walker and Chandler Lawson. Lawson, of course, played for Hardaway at East and is the younger brother of Dedric and K.J.
While it is clear that head coach Dana Altman made some quality additions over the offseason, the player to watch is senior point guard Payton Prichard, whose play down the stretch in 2018 ignited the Ducks eventual Sweet 16 run.
“What scares me about them is Payton Prichard,” Hardaway said. “He’s a guy that can go for 40 points. He showed that last year in the PAC 12 tournament and the NCAA tournament. He can get going, and he’s a dangerous player. They set a lot of screens for him. He’s not the only player on the team but he’s definitely the head of the snake and he scares us for sure.”
More than likely, it will be the duo of Damion Baugh and Alex Lomax that is tasked with guarding Pritchard. Whether or not they can slow him down will go a long way in determining the outcome of this one.
Precious Achiuwa, D.J. Jeffries, and Lance Thomas making plays on both ends and helping Wiseman shoulder the load inside will be crucial to their success.
To put it simply, there will not be many games bigger than this one on their schedule, and a win in Portland would be an emphatic statement to the rest of the country that Memphis basketball is back.
Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. CT on ESPN.