It sure seems like another one of those basketball seasons. A top tier recruiting class takes the court, turning out solid performances in the early games, only for the group to stumble their way through the second and early third quarters of the season. It’s frustrating, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a massive amount of optimism entering the second half of the season.
In the midst of a three game skid, culminating in Penny Hardaway’s frustrated outburst after an 8-point loss to SMU, all hope seemed to be lost. But that’s simply not the case and Sunday’s comeback win against Tulsa showed why.
After Assistant Coach Rasheed Wallace transitioned to a “virtual consulting” role, the Tigers were down a coach. Assistant Coach Larry Brown didn’t travel to Tulsa with the team due to being “under the weather.” Top that off with Jalen Duren, DeAndre Williams, Landers Nolley and Jayden Hardaway out and the Tigers were without four key rotation players. The first half seemed like a metaphor for this season, but with twenty minutes of basketball on the clock, the team rallied from a 13-point deficit to pull out a win at a pivotal point. This was the first Tiger team to walk out of the Donald W. Reynolds Center with a win in almost a decade.
Last season saw a similar turn at its midway point. The Tigers were finally able to unleash Williams and started to crawl into the tournament. And there’s no reason to believe this season will be any different. In fact, it could be more of a sprint to the finish.
Once again, the Tigers entered the season with the top recruiting class in the nation. And once again, they have struggled to live up to the expectations set upon them. Hardaway has shown himself to be a masterful recruiter, bringing in talents like Jalen Duren, Emoni Bates and Precious Achiuwa. Yet every season thus far, it seems like he spends the first half figuring out the best lineups and rotations. With the pandemic and a swath of injuries, it’s been exponentially more difficult to find the perfect lineup. But he might have cracked the code against Tulsa.
Thursday’s home rematch against ECU should be a grudge match. A mere thirteen days after a heartbreaking loss against the pirates, the Tigers – and Memphians alike – need to shrug that loss off with an emphatic victory. And they shouldn’t do it in front of a sparse crowd.
In prior years, the FedExForum was a feared place to play. The Tigers seemed to be a nearly unstoppable force with a roaring crowd and the athletic department knows it. The revitalized student section – renamed to The Ambush this year – is giving away 1,000 free shirts to students and bringing back shuttles to and from the Forum. With the season hanging in the balance, Thursday’s game has to be the turning point for the Tigers’ tournament hopes and a rowdy crowd just off Beale Street could assist in the course-correction needed.
With Geoff Calkins asking if Penny Hardaway can get it done at Memphis, the answer is surely a yes – it’s just going to be the harder way.
After another three-game skid, the Tigers rallied back against Tulsa – which could spur a season-changing run for the team.