Following Sunday’s 75-61 win over the Houston Cougars, Penny Hardaway and the Tigers (20-9) appear to be safe as far as the strength of their first NCAA Tourney résumé goes. ESPN “Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi has the rising Tigers in his group of last four NCAA Tournament selections.
An elated Hardaway believes his guys are in and he stated so to reporters following Sunday’s big win.
“It’s a great day to be Tiger. I think we deserve to be in.”
After 17 games the Memphis Tigers sat at 9-8 and appeared unlikely to be an NCAA Tournament team. The team was having internal issues, from veterans and freshmen not getting along, to Hardaway lashing out at the media.
A January loss to the SMU Mustangs, showed just how much Hardaway and the Tigers had fallen after being ranked as high as No. 11 in the preseason rankings.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. There were huge expectations for Memphis after Hardaway landed the No. 1 ranked recruiting class, including five-star recruits Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates. Both reclassified to the class of 2021, instead of their original class of 2022, to chase a college title.
The instant success everyone expected didn’t happen. Hardaway and Memphis had to work through the issues and grind it out with the belief that talent would prevail.
Penny Hardaway's answer to if he can get the job done at Memphis.
"Stop asking me stupid f***ing questions about if I feel like I can do something. If I had my roster like they did, then I feel like I can do whatever I want to do." pic.twitter.com/WA79u6Y7bc
— Cassie Carlson (@CassieCarlsonTV) January 21, 2022
Since that blowup by Hardaway, Memphis has responded by winning 11 of their last 12 games and surprisingly without the highly-touted Bates.
The 6-foot-9 freshman phenom has reportedly been sidelined with a back ailment, and the team seems to have hit its stride without him. Addition by subtraction looks like it may have saved the Tigers’ season.
Penny Dropped The Ball By Trying To Turn Bates Into A Point Guard: Duren Has Been As Advertised
Upon arrival at Memphis, Hardaway was gung-ho on making Bates a big point guard. That experiment never worked and the team suffered because of it. That caused a rift between the freshman and some of the upperclassmen who believed Hardaway was focusing on Bates’ individual development more than the team’s success.
It was an experiment that failed miserably. Bates averaged more turnovers (2.6) than assists (1.4). He’s a small forward who’s capable of scoring the ball at a high level, and just because he can dribble, doesn’t mean he can run a team. Maybe Hardaway who was a 6-foot-8 point guard himself, was hoping he could do the same with Bates.
— Memphis Basketball (@Memphis_MBB) January 9, 2022
ESPN broadcast analyst Fran Fraschilla shared those same sentiments during a game.
“Just because you’re 6-8 and can dribble the ball doesn’t mean you’re Penny Hardaway,” the former St. John’s Red Storm coach said.
Bates turned 18 in January and can’t enter the NBA draft until 2023.
Duren, on the other hand, has been great, as he’s flourished as sort of stretch five and natural four. Blessed with freakish athleticism and the ability to knock down the midrange jumper, Duren is in line to be a top-10 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. He currently averages 12 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one.
— Memphis Basketball (@Memphis_MBB) March 7, 2022
Hardaway Could Make First NCAA Tourney Appearance With Tigers
Memphis will enter the AAC tournament as the No. 3 seed, and a good showing or tourney win should make them a top-nine seed in next week’s NCAA Tourney. That’s huge, because seeding plays a huge role as to what region you end up in.
The two wins over Houston and Alabama this season are Hardaway’s most impressive wins, supplanting his win over in-state rival Tennessee in 2019.
Having a savvy, legendary coach like Larry Brown sitting alongside him is huge as well. Brown is the only coach to win titles in college (Kansas 1988) and the NBA (Pistons 2004).
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