When the buzzer went off in FedexForum on January 20th as the Tigers lost to SMU, it marked what many felt like rock bottom for the Memphis Tiger basketball for the season.
Down to only five scholarship players available, a three-game losing streak which included road losses to UCF and East Carolina, a 9-8 record when many analysts called them preseason locks for the NCAA Tournament, and finally the head coach having an expletive-filled tirade on reporters after the game, nobody would have expected that a month later the Tigers go on a six-game win streak that would end at SMU.
That is where we are at right now. The rollercoaster, teeter-totter, or whatever cliché carnival simile you want to use to describe this season looks like it may have finally stopped, and fans can finally step out and take a deep breath.
Head Coach Penny Hardaway has silenced many of the critics with the team’s six-game winning streak, which included road wins at both Houston and Cincinnati in back-to-back games. Both wins showed how good this Memphis team really can be with all of its engines firing.
Well, all but one engine firing, I should say.
The freshmen duo of Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates were the catalysts for much of the preseason hype Memphis received. Basketball fans have watched Bates' highlights on YouTube ever since he was 12, and the hype around him coming out of high school was tremendous. When he announced he was reclassifying and was coming to Memphis this fall, it seemed like he was the anointed one for the team, the most hyped Memphis recruit since Derrick Rose.
To say it has not gone the way Bates or Memphis were expecting is a rather large understatement. He has struggled mightily throughout the season, looking lost many times on both offense and defense. It is clear that his struggles have damaged his confidence a ton from the beginning of the year.
Being anointed like he has been his whole life, many believing him to be the next great generational player, is a lot of pressure to put on a kid. Fans forget that he should still be in high school and only turned 18-years-old under a month ago.
Plenty of speculation has come out in the last few weeks since he went out with a “back” injury. In the last game he played against East Carolina, his body language was the worst I had seen. His shots were not falling in the game and it was obvious that by the end of the game he was just ready to leave the FedexForum.
It came to a head at the end of the game when Penny called him to sub in and Emoni sauntered over to the scorer’s table. Penny quickly yanked him back to the bench, and that was that. He went away from the team, returning to Michigan to get treatment, and many wondered if he would return.
Although he has returned to the Memphis bench in his warm up gear, fans and media have speculated that he has played his last game in a Tiger uniform. But there is one hard truth about this situation: the Tigers are a better team without him in the lineup.
I'm not alone in that belief. I have heard others in the media have the same opinion when watching Memphis play. When Emoni plays, he wants to get his shots – and show out like he has his all life – but it bogs down and messes with the flow of the offense.
With him not in the lineup, there is almost no one on the team that tries to force their shots. The Emoni-less Tigers feel like more of a team, and it's hard to argue with the results. The Tigers have looked their best, probably since Penny has been hired in the last four games, which is how many games Emoni has been out for. It will be interesting to see what will unfold with Bates and the Tigers through the rest of this season and the offseason.
With four games left in the Tigers' season, and the team's NCAA tournament hopes on the bubble, freshman Emoni Bates remains on the bench as he recovers from a back injury.