With their season set to resume Wednesday night, the task is simple for the Memphis Tigers. At 12-6 overall and 8-3 in league play, they find themselves in the catbird seat for one of the highly coveted first-round byes in the looming conference tournament. To secure their position among the top seeds and ensure they do not have to win four games in four days, it is crucial they close their last four games out on a high note.
Prior to this most recent stoppage, things had begun to look up for these Tigers. Over the past month, they began to look more comfortable on the offense, the primary issue bogging them down early in the year. Winners of six of their last seven, Penny Hardaway’s team seemingly was discovering its identity: a fast, physical group that is going to make opponents work for everything while relying on ball movement to create good shots. When Memphis can limit the turnovers and errant shot selection, they are capable of doing some legitimate damage in the American Athletic Conference.
Now that the dust has settled and (hopefully) no more games are moved around, Memphis is gearing up for what may be the most important four-game stretch in Hardaway’s coaching career. In each of his first two seasons, the Tigers were on the outside looking in, never finishing higher then fifth in the regular season standings. This time around, assuming they hold steady, they will clinch one of the ever-elusive first-round byes, a pivotal advantage for a team that can use every good break it can get.
Currently 8-3 in AAC play, the Tigers are tied with Houston for second place and are only one game back of first place Wichita State, who boasts a 9-2 conference record. Keep in mind, Memphis throttled the Shockers 72-52 back in January. Despite seeming almost hopeless at times back in November, they are still very much in the thick of the race.
The first test of their four-game season-defining gauntlet will be Tulane at home Wednesday night. The Green Wave, who have already doubled their win total from a season ago, won’t be an easy night by any stretch; Ron Hunter’s team nearly upended the Tigers when they met down in New Orleans, an 80-74 Tigers win.
After hosting Tulane, Memphis will travel to Cincinnati for the first matchup between these sides this year. While the Bearcats have taken a bit of a step backward from the heights they reached under former coach Mick Cronin the past few seasons, it seems like they always show up ready to battle when Memphis is involved.
The Tigers will then travel to South Florida for a meeting with the Bulls before returning home to close out the regular season with a massive meeting with Houston. The Cougars, who led the AAC for most of the year and looked like the clear-cut favorite to win the league, have faltered a bit recently but they are still as dangerous opponent as Memphis will face all season. While the first three games should be winnable on paper, it is the finale vs Kelvin Sampson’s team that looms ominously: it truly could define how this season turns out for the Tigers. For that to be the case, however, they must first take care of their business in these first three games.
First up, tip-off vs the Green Wave is set for 7 p.m. Wednesday night. Buckle up.