The Memphis Tigers began the 2021 season with high expectations. Ranked No. 6, the team began the season 5-0, handling inferior teams like Saint Louis and VA Tech.
But a blowout loss to the Iowa State Cyclones the day after Thanksgiving sent this über-talented bunch into a tailspin. They’d go on to lose four straight and that didn’t do anything to silence the criticisms that Penny Hardaway is a great recruiter, but a below-average coach.
— Memphis Basketball (@Memphis_MBB) December 15, 2021
Talented Tigers Inconsistent Early
The talented Tigers were underachieving. There was conflict between the veterans and newcomers who were receiving a ton of hype. Questions lingered as to Penny’s ability to bring it all together. Tuesday night against No. 6 Alabama represented a crossroads, a sense of desperation for the Tigers just 10 games into the season.
They responded with a huge season-saving 92-78 win over a highly touted Alabama team.
The Crimson Tide had already beaten two Final Four teams from a season ago in Gonzaga and Houston, so they were a worthy test of Memphis’ potential.
Everything came together on Tuesday down on Beale St. With desperation being the theme, Memphis put together a dominant masterpiece.
— Memphis Basketball (@Memphis_MBB) December 15, 2021
The mood was totally different following this game, a stark contrast to the panic engulfing Memphis following a 74-72 home loss to Murray State in their last game. Hardaway made some real coaching blunders that ultimately cost his team the game. He took most of the blame, saying:
“Bad coaching, that’s all I can say, this game is strictly on me.”
On Tuesday, his team bounced back for their coach. The win was uplifting to Hardaway’s spirits. His recruiting tactics and talent stacking has been under fire since he assumed the helm at Memphis.
“I’m definitely enjoying every moment of this,” Hardaway said after the game. “This team is together now.”
Hardaway’s 2021 Recruiting Class Was Loaded
Memphis hired Penny Hardaway in 2018, and the win over Alabama was his first against a Top-10 team. Basically it’s his signature win as head coach of his alma mater.
Hardaway has done well on the recruiting trail each season, but nothing like this year. This time around he landed the No. 5 and No. 6 ranked players in Emoni Bates, who’s drawn comparisons to Kevin Durant, and Jalen Duren, who’s drawn comparisons to Bam Adebayo.
Bates and Duren even reclassified to join the Tigers this season, skipping their senior seasons in high school. He and Duren were once teammates on “Team Thrill” of the elite EYBL circuit. Team Thrill with Duren just won the prestigious Peach Jam in July.
Very solid collegiate debut from Jalen Duren & Emoni Bates 💪
Emoni: 17 PTS | 4 REB | 4 AST
6/9 FG | 4/7 3PT
Jalen: 15 PTS | 6 REB | 5 BLK
7/10 FG | 2 AST pic.twitter.com/M6v2nTBYrj
— Overtime (@overtime) November 10, 2021
This Memphis team was handpicked to make a deep run in the NCAA Tourney. Prior to the Alabama game, they looked like nothing of the sort.
Jealousy Resonated From Vets Concerning Freshman
The arrival of Bates and Duren seemed to have a negative effect on team chemistry with several upperclassmen on the team catching feelings about the hoopla surrounding the new recruits. Penny called it selfishness, jealousy and negativity that seemed to fester throughout the team.
MEMPHIS UPSETS NO. 6 ALABAMA‼️
The Tigers' FIRST top-10 win since 2014 snaps a four-game losing streak. pic.twitter.com/i06DOt34bA
— ESPN (@espn) December 15, 2021
“We’ve got so much negativity in our locker room with veterans and being jealous. Everybody’s trying to get to the NBA off the ranking we had, but nobody is willing to sacrifice minutes, touches, anything. It’s been miserable. You can imagine what a 17-year-old is thinking as he’s trying to figure it out.”
“This is all on me. I am the head coach. I’ve tried to think it through as a guy who played the game. Our problems have nothing to do with X’s and O’s. We have a character issue all the way around.”
See you tonight at @BrookhavenPub!
Coach Brown is the guest, and the first 25 @uofmemphis students eat free on Coach!
— Memphis Basketball (@Memphis_MBB) December 13, 2021
Of late, the locker room culture seems to be trending in the right direction.
Hardaway Has Experienced Veteran Coaching Staff
The Tigers added Larry Brown to the bench. Brown is one of the greatest coaches to ever do it. He’s the only coach to win both an NCAA and NBA championship as head coach. He coached Allen Iverson through his peak seasons. His experience dealing with superstar egos is invaluable. Hardaway also hired former NBA star Rasheed Wallace who played for Brown on the 2004 Detroit Pistons NBA championship squad.
I asked Rasheed Wallace about his excitement level being able to coach under Penny, alongside Larry Brown, and in a big basketball town like Memphis pic.twitter.com/cnRFjdAUA0
— Samaria Terry (@samariaterry) August 31, 2021
Players want to play for guys who have an NBA background and pedigree. You’d be hard- pressed to find a staff in all of college basketball as seasoned as Penny, Brown and Wallace. That type of veteran presence is a positive for a young team.
There’s always going to be some discord when really talented teams are trying to figure out how to play and win together. It’s how you respond that determines how the rest of the season goes.
If Tuesday’s win is any indication, the Tigers are moving in the right direction and will be dangerous for the remainder of the schedule. Talent is not the issue. A commitment to one common cause has been the roadblock to success.
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