After the Tigers’ gritty win at Tulsa on January 23, I wrote about how Penny Hardaway and his team would be taking the harder way into the tournament. Sure enough, they took it. After turning into one of college basketball’s hottest teams – winning 12 of their last 14 games – the Tigers are going dancing for the first time since 2014.
When writing back in January, I pondered the strength with which Memphis has closed out their last two seasons. The Tigers simply didn’t have enough real estate to crawl out of the hole they had dug themselves into last year, finishing the season on a 9-3 run from January 24 through the AAC tournament.
After a second straight year of closing out the season well, you could make a case that Hardaway is on his way to joining the likes of Jim Boeheim, Jay Wright, Bill Self, Tom Izzo and Mike Krzyzewski as a so-called “March coach.” And it’s not a stretch to think that could happen as soon as next season.
It always seems that the Tigers get off to slow starts, but hit a consistent turning-point heading into February. There comes a point where Hardaway puts a lineup on the court with chemistry that puts the conference on notice. That lineup happened to be Lomax, Quinones, Nolley, Williams and Duren this year and, when firing on all fronts, yanked the Tigers from a bubble slot all the way to an at-large bid.
Much of the late-season success can – and should – be attributed to Hardaway and the entire coaching staff. When the season seemed bleak and media across the country had Memphis missing the big dance again, they took the disrespect and turned it into fuel for the players to feed on.
That disrespect seems to be mounting, yet again, with many analysts taking Boise State over Memphis in the first round. The two teams found themselves in a dogfight in last year’s NIT Tournament and I expect a similar outcome in this year’s NCAA Tournament.
But the struggle would continue for the Tigers, should they make it to the second round, playing in one of the most stacked regions the committee put together – featuring Gonzaga, Duke, Arkansas, UConn, Alabama, Michigan State and Texas Tech. If Memphis basketball were to win – or even play Gonzaga close – in the second round, there’s no question that Hardaway is growing into a March coach before our very eyes.
As it was in January, so it is now. The Tigers voluntarily took the harder way into the tournament and now are forced to take the harder way to make a run for the ages.
After another three-game skid, the Tigers rallied back against Tulsa – which could spur a season-changing run for the team.