With the American Athletic Conference tournament set to begin this week in Fort Worth, Texas, the Memphis Tigers have their work cut out for them. Win three games in three days, and they will return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014.
As deflating as Sunday’s heartbreaking loss to Houston was, it also proved something else: this team can compete with anyone. With Deandre Williams in foul trouble and Alex Lomax still sidelined with an ankle injury, these Tigers still took the #9 team in the nation all the way to the wire.
“You’re playing a top-10 team on the road, in their building on Senior Day,” Penny Hardaway said. “With all that’s at stake, to be in a tied game with 1.7 seconds left and they hit a half-court shot to beat you, I think that’s pretty damn good.”
All season, Memphis has relied on its defense to keep them competitive. While their offense has gone stagnant at times, their defense slots in or around the top-10 nationally in most of the team defensive metrics in all NCAA Division 1. Even when their offense has struggled, the defense has been consistently good enough to carry them regardless. Don’t expect them to deviate too far from that same formula in the AAC tournament.
“We’re Memphis,” sophomore guard Lester Quinones said. “Everyone knows that we’re going to fight regardless of the situation. We’re going to come out and fight and play our hearts out. Three games in three days is going to be tough, but is it possible? Yes, definitely.”
Heading into the league tournament, Memphis should feel confident that it can win the whole thing. While a difficult rematch with Houston likely awaits them in the semifinals, there is no doubt that they will be chomping at the bit for another shot at the Cougars.
“I feel like we’re playing at our best when we’re all clicking and just trusting each other,” Quinones said. “Nobody is complaining, everybody is listening. I feel like we’re definitely one of the best teams in the country when we’re hitting on all cylinders but finding that is what has been our struggle all year. There are little spurts where everyone sees we can be amazing; we just have to get those bad spurts out with the turnovers and silly, careless mistakes.”
Memphis will get its first opportunity to prove it belongs in the NCAA tournament Friday night when they take on the winner of East Carolina and UCF, two teams they handled with relative ease during the regular season. While it remains imperative they do not overlook anyone, they should feel confident knowing they are playing their best basketball at the most important time of the season.
Memphis is set to open AAC tournament play Friday night at 9 p.m.
With their regular season hopes for making the tournament in the trash, the Tigers are looking towards the AAC tournament to earn their bid.