Monday, August 13, 2018

Penny Hardaway: Hall of Famer?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 13, 2018 at 11:19 AM

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame recently inducted their 2018 classes, Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero, Randy Moss, and Brian Urlacher, among others, joining their respective sport's pantheon of immortals. Which has me thinking about the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the shrine in Springfield, Massachusetts, devoted to honoring and celebrating legends of the hardwood. In particular, the recent ceremonies in Cooperstown and Canton have me thinking of this city's most popular living sports figure, and his place in basketball history.
  • NBAE/Getty

Anfernee Hardaway is a Hall of Famer. Or at least he should be.

Here we are, almost 11 years since the pride of Treadwell High School played his last NBA game (December 3, 2007), and Penny Hardaway cannot be found among the greatest to play the sport he commanded for an all-too-brief professional career. And that's the catch for Hardaway: However great he may have been, we're tortured by the question of what he could have been, perhaps what he should have been with stronger knees.

But there's an advantage Hardaway holds as a former basketball great. The Basketball Hall of Fame has a significantly lower standard for induction than baseball's Hall, and even lower than football's. Unless your name is Sandy Koufax, a career abbreviated by injury eliminates you from consideration for Cooperstown. You have to have played ten seasons just to reach baseball's ballot, and most inductees enjoyed careers of at least 15 years. As for football, Kurt Warner and Terrell Davis have recently been inducted, joining Gale Sayers among gridiron greats who starred brightly enough during brief careers to earn enshrinement.

Then there's the hoop Hall. Here's a look at four recent inductees to factor into the equation of Penny Hardaway's qualifications:

• Maurice Cheeks (will be inducted this year) — Four-time All-Star. Never named to an All-NBA team. Played a supporting role (to Julius Erving and Moses Malone) on one of the greatest teams in NBA history, the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers. Played 15 years in the NBA.

• Sarunas Marciulionis (2014) — The face of Lithuanian basketball (particularly at the 1992 Olympics). Played seven seasons in the NBA. Never an All-Star.

• Jamaal Wilkes (2012) — Three-time All-Star. 1974-75 NBA Rookie of the Year. Played supporting role (to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) for three L.A. Laker championship teams. Never named to an All-NBA team.

• Satch Sanders (2011) — Played supporting role (to Bill Russell and John Havlicek) for eight Boston Celtic championship teams. Never an All-Star and never named to an All-NBA team. Never averaged more than 12.6 points in a season.

Sorry, but these four players don't so much as approximate the star power of Penny Hardaway in his prime. Let's consider 50 games a "full" season for an NBA player. Penny played nine such seasons, so it's not as though he went down after five or six no-look passes and a reverse dunk. He was named All-NBA three times, and twice first-team (after the 1994-95 and 1995-96 seasons). Consider his company on the 1996 All-NBA team: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, and David Robinson (all members of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team). Hardaway was a four-time All-Star and averaged more than 20 points per game three times.

Let's forget the stats and accolades, though. Basketball doesn't have a significant counting number — 3,000 hits or 10,000 rushing yards — that introduces a player into discussions about Hall of Fame status. In nearly every case, it's an eye test. Did the player do things on a basketball court we don't see many (if any) others do? This is where Penny Hardaway's Hall of Fame case becomes lock-down secure. Beyond Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson, who can fill — to this day — a 60-second highlight reel like Hardaway?

He was the national high school player of the year (according to Parade magazine) in 1990. He was named first-team All-America as a junior at Memphis State in 1993. And he remains an unforgettable performer at basketball's highest level, an Olympic gold medalist. (Get this: Every member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame . . . except Penny Hardaway.) The good folks at SLAM magazine recently published an issue ranking the 100 greatest players of all time, and Hardaway checks in at 92. (None of the Hall of Famers mentioned above made the cut.)

I'm convinced the Naismith selection committee will someday get this right. But make no mistake: the Basketball Hall of Fame is incomplete without Penny Hardaway.

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Three Questions About Memphis Tiger Football

Posted By on Mon, Jul 30, 2018 at 11:11 AM

The 2018 Memphis Tiger football team opens its preseason camp this Friday. Year three of the Mike Norvell era opens with the coach newly signed to a contract extension that could — emphasis, could — keep him on the Liberty Bowl sideline through the 2022 season. Still two months shy of his 37th birthday — he's a decade younger than a certain, quite popular basketball coach in town — Norvell has 18 wins under his belt and a Top-25 finish for last season's 10-3 team.

So what's next? There are far more questions than answers during any training camp. Here are three to get things started.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Norvell

How will the Tigers wear the hat of favorites?

In the American Athletic Conference's preseason media poll, the Tigers were picked to win a second consecutive West Division title, and it wasn't close (Memphis received 23 first-place votes to four for second-place Houston). We are but six seasons removed from a 2-10 campaign that had Memphis well shy of relevance on the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) landscape. Now the program is in the conversation when New Years Six bowl games are discussed, that lone, precious spot reserved for the top team outside the Power Five leagues.

The Tigers are now a hunted program, circled on the schedules of UCF (the defending AAC champ), Houston, and six other AAC teams. The roster is star-studded, with six first-team all-conference players (according to Athlon), and two — running back Darrell Henderson and kick-return maestro Tony Pollard — getting All-America consideration. Memphis will be heavily favored in five of its first six games, a trip to Navy being the lone roadblock, it appears, to a 6-0 start before UCF visits on October 13th. Can the Tigers motivate themselves from atop the AAC standings? For so long, a pigskin-sized chip has rested on the shoulder of Tiger players come game day. Can a front-runner stay hungry?

Can the Tiger defense win games?

In two years under Norvell, Memphis has alllowed 28.8 and 32.5 yards per game. (Last year's figure ranked 102nd among 130 FBS programs.) With its explosive offense, Memphis was able to win games last season in which the Tigers allowed 31 points (twice), 38, and 45 (twice). If there's any drop in offense from a year ago — the Tigers averaged a program-record 45.5 points per game — can the defense earn a win or two?

Cornerback T.J. Carter, only a sophomore, is already a star. Senior linebacker Curtis Akins appears ready to step into the leadership void left by Genard Avery (drafted by the Cleveland Browns). Linebacker Austin Hall and lineman O'Bryan Goodson have received preseason accolades. Perhaps this is the year the Tiger D flexes some muscle in resistance to high-powered attacks like that of UCF (the Knights beat Memphis in last year's AAC Championship, 62-55). Balance is one of those crutch-words for football coaches (and analysts). New heights could be reached if Memphis finds balance between its offensive and defensive strengths.

Who will quarterback this team?

You didn't think I'd overlook the most pressing question on the depth chart, did you? The only thing worse than a football team having no quarterback is a football team having two quarterbacks. Between now and the opener (Mercer visits September 1st), Norvell and offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham will have to decide between sophomore David Moore (10 career pass attempts) and junior transfer Brady White (three games for Arizona . . . in 2016). Memphis has been spoiled by it quarterbacks the last four seasons, as Paxton Lynch and Riley Ferguson averaged 3,690 yards and 30 touchdowns over the period (all winning seasons).

Having lost All-America wideout Anthony Miller to the NFL, the Tigers' 2018 quarterback will be asked to trust the weapons remaining — Henderson, Pollard, Patrick Taylor, and Joey Magnifico to name four — and use a talented, experienced offensive line to chew up yardage. No heroics or record-breaking stat lines required. This will be a fun competition to watch throughout August. But keep that nugget of wisdom in mind: If one of these two signal-callers hasn't emerged by September, the Tigers have a significant hole in their attack. 

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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Penny Speaks, We Listen

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2018 at 12:10 PM

Anfernee Hardaway hosted his first formal press conference as head coach of the University of Memphis basketball team last week. The pride of Treadwell High School spoke to more than 30 reporters for 30 minutes about his first 30 days on the job. He exuded a comfort with the position most rookie coaches would envy. He appeared to feel at home in the shiny new Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center. And he said a few things we'll remember when his first college team takes the floor in November.

"We got into the [recruiting] game really late, and to assemble the talent we did is a blessing."
However Hardaway's career as Tiger coach unfolds, his first month will be part of his legacy. With most of the nation's top 2018 recruits having long signed with other programs, Hardaway managed to land a pair of elite local talents — East guard Alex Lomax and Cordova guard Tyler Harris — when either one would have been a blessing, of sorts, for the departed Tubby Smith. Add a third four-star prize (shooting guard Antwann Jones from Tampa) and Memphis has a class that would have earned plaudits even if it had not been an 11th-hour fix for the 2018-19 season. Quite a fix, indeed.

"Our message was, 'We're gonna teach you, develop you, get you better.' That's what the parents wanted to hear, outside the education piece, which is most important. Most of these kids want to go to the NBA. Who better to get them there than me and Mike [Miller]."
Hardaway has preached the importance of returning the Tiger program to its glory days, connecting the current program with teams older fans remember cheering when Larry Finch, Keith Lee, and Hardaway himself wore blue and gray deep into the NCAA tournament. But the future of the Tiger program is more about three letters: N, B, and A. Whether or not the professional league's "one-and-done" mandate remains in place for draft eligibility, elite basketball players are drawn to college programs that will clear a path to professional riches. Hardaway's Tiger past is a nice, sentimental coating to the story he'll craft as a college coach in his hometown. But it's his NBA pedigree that attracts the likes of Lomax and Harris. Add Mike Miller (with his own AAU connections) and Memphis has a recruiting tandem — a combined 1,736 games in The League — unlike any other in the country.

"I want to play the big boys. That's how you measure yourself, especially early."
Tennessee is back on the schedule. (The Vols will start the 2018-19 season among the nation's Top 20.) Hardaway is pursuing a home-and-home series with Kentucky. (He drew laughter when he mentioned John Calipari asking for a neutral site.) Over an 11-day period last December, Memphis hosted the following four teams: Mercer, Samford, Bryant, and Albany. And people wonder why all the empty seats at FedExForum? The training wheels must be removed from the Tigers' nonconference schedule. Hardaway seems intent on doing so.

"Everybody's buying in. And that's what we wanted, to get people excited about Tiger basketball again."
Hardaway mentioned the standing ovations (plural) he's received since being named head coach and the gratitude Tiger fans have shown for him being willing to "help us." I can't speak for the new coach, but this transition feels as much like a rescue mission as it does merely the return of a native son to a position of prominence. Furthermore, with Larry Finch dead and Keith Lee a recluse, there's only one person on the planet who could spearhead such a rescue. The community feels this and Penny Hardaway is starting to feel it.

"First it's compliance, then Tony [Madlock] who I call every day."
Hardaway and Madlock made for a special backcourt the one season they played together, taking the Tigers to the 1992 Elite Eight. Madlock will now serve as Hardaway's assistant with the most experience in the college game. Whatever value Miller brings as a recruiter, Hardaway will need some guidance when it comes to game management, coordinating a rotation, and simply communicating with each of his players. Madlock will be big in these areas. [Longtime NBA coach Sam Mitchell is expected to be the final assistant added to Hardaway's staff.]

"The smallest thing is a no-no on this level. I'm very careful."
Hardaway wasn't allowed to join a celebration of East High's recent state championship . . . and he coached that Mustang team. Such is life for a modern college basketball coach, maneuvering daily within (hopefully) the rules and regs of a governing body that sometimes seems unable to define its own legislating. The rookie coach is attentive to this new job structure and appears willing to take the necessary steps to ensure a clean program on his watch.

"We want to win a national championship. It's not far-fetched."
Hardaway mentioned Loyola-Chicago's story, that no one picked the Ramblers to reach the 2018 Final Four. He doesn't expect his Tigers to be placed in the category of Kentucky, Duke, or Kansas merely by his presence on the sideline. But Hardaway does expect such a standard to be the aim of his players and coaching staff. He's not shying from the sport's highest bar. "With the right mindset and the right coaches pushing you, anything's possible."

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

U of M Introduces Coach Hardaway

Posted By on Tue, Mar 20, 2018 at 12:04 PM

If spring comes packaged with hope, the season's arrival Tuesday brought an extra dose for anyone remotely interested in University of Memphis basketball. The worst-kept secret in town was made official at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center when the U of M formally introduced Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway as the 19th head coach in the program's long, proud history. The 46-year-old Hardaway — a native Memphian — succeeds Tubby Smith, who was dismissed last week after two years of sagging attendance at FedExForum. Smith's Tigers went 40-26 over the two seasons and the former coach has three years and more than $9 million remaining on his contract.

This is the first college job of any kind for Hardaway, who attended what was then called Memphis State University for three years in the early Nineties and later returned to earn a bachelor's degree in professional studies. He was a two-time Great Midwest Conference Player of the Year as a Tiger and a consensus All-America in 1993. The third pick in the 1993 NBA draft, Hardaway enjoyed a 15-year career as a pro, most notably with the Orlando Magic, for whom he was a four-time All-Star and twice named first-team All-NBA. He captured a gold Medal as a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. Since retiring in 2008, Hardaway has built one of the country's top AAU programs (Team Penny) and top high school programs, his East High Mustangs winning their third consecutive state title just last Saturday in Murfreesboro. Having first established legendary credentials at Treadwell High School, Hardaway was a 2014 inductee in the National High School Hall of Fame.

The new coach spent less than five minutes on the dais. Too many hands to shake and necks to hug in the new training facility's packed rotunda. Highlights from Hardaway's remarks:

We need to get back to those old-school days at the Mid-South Coliseum and the Pyramid. I miss those days. We've got to get them back.

I'm dedicated to the team that just finished [the 2017-18] season. I've told them that it was unfair — to them — that nobody really showed up [at FedExForum]. Those days are gone. We're going to move forward with these guys and also bring some really good talent here that the city of Memphis will want to see on a nightly basis.

It's great to see so many familiar faces from when I played, the people who have been so supportive. It's a family reunion. I want to see the Memphis flags waving from cars, see the t-shirts and hats.

As a coach, my style . . . we're gonna get after it. We'll play hard-nosed basketball, running, jumping, pressing everywhere. Losing is not an option in my mind. I want to hit the ground running. People are telling me to be patient, do this or that first. But I'm not built that way. I'm not wired that way. I'll go for it all or none at all.

Look at this facility. It speaks to the dedication of the donors and boosters. This has come a long way from the field house where I practiced. The older players — Kenny Moody, Elliot Perry — they know. We just wanted to win basketball games. But how can you not love this facility, to bring kids here to grind and work and put a product out on the court that you can be proud of.

Hardaway's Tiger career ended this month 25 years ago. Or it seemed then. On a rainy spring Tuesday, in a facility built for champions, it seemed like Hardaway's Tiger career has just begun.

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Monday, March 19, 2018

Three Thoughts on Coach Hardaway

Posted By on Mon, Mar 19, 2018 at 8:34 AM

With the imminent hiring of Penny Hardaway as the 19th basketball coach in Memphis Tiger history, I've had a few thoughts delivering no-look passes in my head.

Rare is the star player who becomes a star coach, and this seems especially the case in basketball. The gold standard, of course, is Bill Russell. The Celtics legend won a pair of NBA titles as Boston's coach, but he had the luxury of an all-time great at center: himself. Larry Bird took Indiana to the 2000 NBA Finals (where the Pacers lost to the Lakers), but he hasn't coached a game since. Clyde Drexler coached for two forgettable years at his alma mater, the University of Houston, and Kevin McHale had some success with the Houston Rockets (he was fired early in his fifth season on the bench). Patrick Ewing just went 15-15 in his first season as coach at Georgetown. Since Hardaway's playing days, the only first-team All-NBA player to take a coach's seat has been Jason Kidd, and he was recently fired by the Milwaukee Bucks. There's a reason we don't recall Coach Chamberlain, Coach Robertson, or Coach Jordan.

To begin with, men with extraordinary talents can find it challenging to teach younger men with more ordinary skills. Larry Bird the player had no trouble draining a three-pointer from the corner with two men guarding him in a game's final minute. Why can't his players?!? Kidd saw angles and openings on the hardwood that few other players even knew were there. Why can't his players?!?

Another component to this dichotomy is something we'll call "mountaintop syndrome." Star players tend to win championships and accolades, making them somewhat less motivated — less hungry — for glory in a suit and tie. And this is where I find Hardaway's situation so intriguing. Penny was a glorious player, but never quite reached the mountaintop. He didn't win a state title at Treadwell. As a sophomore at Memphis State, his Tigers fell a game short of the Final Four. (They lost in the opening round in 1993, his final season in blue and gray.) He helped the Orlando Magic reach the 1995 NBA Finals, but they were swept by the Rockets. Hardaway's a compelling case for the Hall of Fame, but not yet an inductee. (If Jamaal Wilkes is a Hall of Famer, so is Penny, however abbreviated his career may have been.)

I'm guessing there's still a fire in Hardaway's belly for the kind of championship hardware that truly makes for basketball immortality. It may be the factor that separates him from other superstars unable to thrive in a coach's office.

Hardaway is a young coach only relative to his 66-year-old predecessor. Hardaway turns 47 in July, making him older when he coaches his first Tiger game than Larry Finch was when he coached his last. (Finch was merely 35 when he replaced Dana Kirk as Tiger coach in 1986.) Gene Bartow was 40 when he was named Tiger coach in 1970, Kirk 44 (in 1979), and John Calipari 41 (in 2000). In part because of his nickname, Hardaway will always be somewhat of a kid in these parts. His playing style was as electrifying — as young — as any we remember. But Hardaway's at a life stage where a major college coaching job fits him. His players and staff will know who occupies the boss's office.

• Hardaway changes his phone number. A lot. He's nowhere near the recluse fellow Tiger great Keith Lee has become. Hardaway is actually the rare Tiger fan who's been a regular at FedExForum the last few years, in a courtside seat, no less. And he's delightful when approached, as all grown men called "Penny" must be.

But you get the impression Hardaway doesn't necessarily love a camera and microphone. People much closer to the Tiger program than I am have had difficulty reaching him. Cameras and microphones are getting ready to be new appendages for this man. The media glare will only intensify when things go very well (or very poorly) with Tiger basketball, and particularly under Hardaway's watch. It will be interesting — maybe cringe-worthy in the first few months — to see how this hometown legend returns the community hug he's been offered. He's no longer just a Memphis Tiger legend, but the face and voice of the program. And that voice cannot go silent. Should Hardaway wonder about that, he can ask his old pal Larry Porter how it worked out for him.

ESPN's Jeff Goodman is reporting Hardaway has agreed to take the Memphis job. The official press conference announcing the move is scheduled for 11 a.m. Tuesday at the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tubby Smith Out as Tiger Basketball Coach

Posted By on Wed, Mar 14, 2018 at 12:06 PM

Tubby Smith has been dismissed as University of Memphis men's basketball coach. His departure comes with three years and more than $9 million remaining on his contract. (Terms of his buyout will be updated when made available.) Smith announced he is no longer the Tiger head coach after a brief meeting Wednesday morning with U of M president David Rudd.

A brief statement from the university was released after Wednesday's meeting: "After considerable deliberations and in the best financial interests of the University of Memphis, an agreement of separation with head men's basketball coach Tubby Smith has been reached."
  • Larry Kuzniewski
Smith posted an overall record of 40-26 over his two seasons at the Memphis helm, but failed to get the Tigers to the postseason (NCAA tournament or NIT), extending a drought that now measures four years. A significant portion of his roster at the end of the 2016-17 season — most notably brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson — chose to transfer with eligibility remaining. This forced Smith and his staff to replenish the program with junior-college transfers like Kyvon Davenport, Kareem Brewton, and Mike Parks. Smith was unable to land prize recruits, including local talent like East High's Alex Lomax or Cordova's Tyler Harris. Worst of all for Smith, attendance at FedExForum plummeted to an average of 6,225 in 2017-18, the lowest figure since the Tigers played at the Mid-South Coliseum in 1969-70 (the year before Larry Finch first suited up for Memphis State).

Memphis is the first of six career stops on Smith's head-coaching resume where he failed to take a team to the NCAA tournament. He has taken teams to the Sweet Sixteen nine times (but not since 2005) and won the 1998 national championship with Kentucky. He leaves Memphis with a career record of 597-302.

Rumors have been swirling for weeks that former Tiger and NBA star Penny Hardaway will be hired to succeed Smith. Hardaway is currently coaching the East High Mustangs, a team favored to win its third straight state title this week in Murfreesboro. The Tiger job would be the first college gig for Hardaway who happens to be a few months older than Finch was when he was fired by the university after the 1996-97 season.

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Monday, March 12, 2018

Memo to Penny Hardaway

Posted By on Mon, Mar 12, 2018 at 8:46 AM


TO: Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway

FROM: your hometown

RE: the new gig

It will never get better than right now, Penny. Soak it in. Absorb the energy of a region still astounded by the breathtaking basketball skills of a player who mixed Magic, Bird, and Michael into one spindly package of All-America sunshine over two winters in Memphis and a few more professionally as an All-NBA guard. That spontaneous outburst of affection at your opening press conference? Just wait for opening night of the 2018-19 Memphis Tiger season.

Some of us still like to consider the Pyramid "the House that Penny Built," as your two seasons there remain the pointy building's most memorable attraction, no matter the height of America's "tallest freestanding elevator." By that definition, you literally helped shape the Bluff City skyline. And you've been doing so, by other measures, long since Tiger basketball — and our NBA Grizzlies — moved into FedExForum.

Soak it in, Penny, because here come the expectations. And the more prominent a new college basketball coach's standing in a community, the higher those expectations tend to be. And this is Memphis, Penny. There were times you could look down at the rim as you dunked a basketball. Well, the bar just got higher.
  • NBAE/Getty Images
  • All-NBA. Twice.

A college basketball coach must do three things well to keep his job: recruit, win games, and sell tickets. Not that long ago, Josh Pastner was hired to coach the Tigers precisely because of his precocious recruiting talent. And man, did he recruit. Remember when Austin Nichols and Nick King were both destined to join you as All-America Tigers? (Well, King became one. At Middle Tennessee.) Attracting highly ranked talent got Pastner only so far, though. He didn't win enough games over his last two seasons and, worse, people stopped buying season tickets, quit showing up for Tiger games at FedExForum.

Your predecessor, Tubby Smith, won 60 percent of his games as the Tiger coach, but sold even fewer tickets than Pastner. The man has a national championship on his resume, but he seems to have lost whatever touch he had as a recruiter, and Memphis is no juco basketball town. Now Smith will be paid by the University of Memphis not to coach the Tigers.

You can handle this, Mr. Hardaway. Surely you can. Pennies may be made of zinc, but you have the Midas touch anywhere near the hardwood. Team Penny. The East High Mustangs. You win games, in part, because the best players want to play for you. They want to feel some of the magic still in your veins all these years after your trip to the NBA Finals with that team in Orlando. They will come to the Tiger program to feel that magic. Oh yes, they will come.

Now about those standards, that elevated bar mentioned earlier. It's the Final Four, Penny. You must take us back to the Final Four. (And please, let us keep the banner this time.) A trip to the Sweet Sixteen would be an acceptable warm-up. (Next season, please.) But it's the Final Four or even a Penny will get devalued in Memphis. Surely you recall Larry Finch's send-off. One of two or three basketball figures who could approximate your popularity here — and the man who convinced you to stay home and become a Tiger — Finch signed his termination papers on the Pyramid concourse not quite two years after taking Memphis to the Sweet Sixteen. Only five years after coaching your first Tiger team all the way to the Elite Eight.

It's the Final Four, Penny. Nothing short.

In your 46-year lifetime, exactly two Tiger coaches have left for what can be called greener basketball pastures: Gene Bartow in 1974 and John Calipari amid scandal in 2009. And neither Bartow nor Calipari grew up in Memphis, starred in both high school and college here, then returned to help make his hometown a better place for generations to come. Pardon us for being dramatic — no this is Memphis Tiger basketball, so let's get dramatic — but welcome to your birthright. It will never get better than right now, Penny.

Or will it?

Saturday, March 10, 2018

AAC semifinals: #8 Cincinnati 70, Tigers 60

Posted By on Sat, Mar 10, 2018 at 5:13 PM

The 8th-ranked Cincinnati Bearcats utilized an 18-2 run to open the second half and erase a 13-point deficit, a surge that proved devastating to the Tigers' upset hopes. With 17 points and 12 rebounds from American Athletic Conference Player of the Year Gary Clark, Cincinnati may well have ended the Tigers' season and the Memphis coaching tenure of Tubby Smith.

Having posted a record of 21-13, the Tigers will await Sunday's announcement of the 32-team National Invitation Tournament field, their only chance at postseason play. Should they not receive a bid, it will be four straight years without significant March basketball for the U of M.

The Tigers took control early in Saturday's game, fueled by the red-hot touch of freshman guard Jamal Johnson, who hit five three-pointers before halftime on his way to 17 points in the first 20 minutes. But Johnson didn't score after halftime and Kyvon Davenport was the only other Tiger to reach double-figures in the scoring column (12 points). Memphis shot a miserable 35 percent from the field for the game, missing 22 of 27 second-half shots.

Cincinnati improved to 29-4 with the win and will face Houston in the tournament championship game Sunday. The third-seeded Cougars upset Wichita State, 77-74.

Should the Tigers not receive an NIT bid, offseason discussion will begin with Smith's status as head coach. Despite three years remaining on his contract, Smith seems like a casualty of efforts to bring aboard Tiger legend — and current East High School coach — Penny Hardaway. Hardaway's Mustangs will be playing in the Tennessee state tournament next week. In two years at Memphis, Smith has posted a record of 40-26.

Friday, March 9, 2018

AAC Tourney: Tigers 67, Tulsa 64

Posted By on Fri, Mar 9, 2018 at 3:42 PM

He's done this before.

Tiger guard Kareem Brewton connected on a three-pointer with one second left on the game clock to help Memphis upset Tulsa in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament Friday in Orlando. Filling in for injured point guard Jeremiah Martin, Brewton pulled off the same heroics he did in the Tigers' overtime win at Temple on January 13th. With the victory, Memphis advances to a semifinal matchup Saturday with Cincinnati, regular-season champions of the AAC.

With their seventh win in eight games, the Tigers improved to 21-12 for the season and may have inched closer to a bid in the National Invitation Tournament. Tulsa falls to 19-12 with the loss.

Memphis capitalized on miserable Tulsa shooting early to take a 25-16 lead, but turnovers allowed the Golden Hurricane to close the first half on a 9-0 run, reducing the Tiger lead to 26-25. The Tigers extended their lead to 11 (48-37) midway through the second half, but Tulsa enjoyed a 22-8 run to take a 59-56 lead with less than three minutes to play.

There were three lead changes in the final two minutes, the biggest shot for Memphis a three-pointer by Kyvon Davenport with 29 seconds left to give the Tigers a 64-63 lead. Martins Igbanu hit one of two free throws with four seconds to go to tie the game before Brewton's game-winner.

Brewton and Davenport led the Tigers with 15 points, Mike Parks added 14, and Jamal Johnson scored 12 (including three three-pointers).

Memphis lost both its meetings with 8th-ranked Cincinnati this winter, the first by 34 points in Ohio on December 31st, then by 14 points at FedExForum on January 27th. Tip-off Saturday is scheduled for noon.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

AAC Tourney: Tigers 79, USF 77

Posted By on Thu, Mar 8, 2018 at 3:48 PM

Tubby Smith remains the head coach of the University of Memphis Tigers. At least for a day.

Amid swirling rumors that he'll be replaced at season's end by Penny Hardaway, Smith led the Tigers to a win over the USF Bulls in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference tournament in Orlando. The win comes exactly a week after the Bulls (10-22) embarrassed the Tigers, 75-51, at FedExForum.

USF reduced a nine-point halftime deficit to just three and had a chance to tie the game in the the closing seconds but Stephan Jiggetts misfired from three-point range.

Kyvon Davenport led the Tigers with a season-high 27 points (and nine rebounds) and freshman David Nickelberry came off the bench and tied his own season high with 14 points (12 of them in the first half). Kareem Brewton added 12 points in his fourth start since Jeremiah Martin's season-ending foot injury. Memphis shot a stellar 57 percent from the field and connected on eight of 17 three-point attempts.

The win gives Memphis (20-12) its first 20-win season since the 2013-14 campaign and keeps hope alive for a possible bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

The Tigers will play Tulsa in the AAC quarterfinals Friday afternoon (tip-off at 1 p.m.). The Golden Hurricane finished the regular season 19-11 and split a pair of games with Memphis, losing by nine points at FedExForum on January 6th and beating the Tigers by 13 in Oklahoma on January 20th.

Monday, March 5, 2018

AAC Tourney Preview

Posted By on Mon, Mar 5, 2018 at 10:11 AM

Here we are again.

After winning five of their last six games, the 2017-18 Memphis Tigers finished their regular season with a record of 19-12. Which is precisely the mark they posted at this stage of the 2016-17 season. The Tigers again finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, though one win better (10-8) than they were a year ago in league play.

Last season, fifth place earned the Tigers a bye into the AAC tournament quarterfinals. With 12 teams now, the AAC only rewards a bye to four teams, so Memphis will face the USF Bulls in a first-round game Thursday in Orlando. The game will take place precisely a week after the league's cellar-dweller embarrassed the Tigers at FedExForum.

The AAC tournament has not been kind to Memphis. In three of the four tourneys to date, the Tigers lost their opening game (last season to UCF by 30 points). They made a run to the tournament championship game two years ago, only to bow out against UConn in what proved to be Josh Pastner's final game as Tiger head coach.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Parks Jr.

Memphis will not play in the NCAA tournament a fourth straight season, the longest such drought in these parts since 1997-2002 (six years). And only with a run in the AAC tournament might Memphis earn a bid to the second-tier NIT. (A miss there would mean no postseason play for a fourth straight season, which hasn't happened since 1978-81.) How can the Tigers find some fun near Disney World? There are three keys, and each of them has a name (and two arms, and two legs).

1) Mike Parks Jr. — The closest thing to a true center Memphis has suited up in years (though just 6'8"), Parks was averaging 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds after the Tigers' loss to Cincinnati on December 31st. Seventeen games later (ten of them wins), Parks's numbers are 8.1 and 4.4. Not the kind of figures that land you on draft boards, but Parks generally plays well in Tiger wins (20 points and eight boards in Sunday's win over East Carolina) and poorly in Tiger losses (two points, two rebounds, and three fouls in 12 minutes in the loss to USF on March 1st). The Tigers enjoyed two four-game winning streaks in conference play and Parks averaged 15.5 points over these eight games.

2) Kareem Brewton Jr. — Brewton found some extra life in his game after point guard Jeremiah Martin (the AAC's scoring champion) went down with a left-foot injury in the first half of the Tigers' upset of Houston on February 22nd. His 12 points and seven assists helped fuel the Tigers' win at UConn on February 25th and he scored a season-high 22 points (with six assists) in the Memphis win over ECU last weekend. Like Parks, Brewton disappeared in the loss to USF (one for ten from the field in 37 minutes). Basketball teams don't generally win in March without steady play from their point guard. For this week, at least, Kareem Brewton is the Memphis Tigers' point guard.

3) Kyvon Davenport — The third juco transfer on this list is one of just four AAC players to average as many as 12.8 points and 6.0 rebounds this season. When you factor in Martin's late-season injury, Davenport has been the steadiest player at coach Tubby Smith's disposal for 31 games. He failed to score at least 10 points only six times. If the Tigers are to advance this week, multiple players will have to make up the absence of Martin's 18.9 points per game. Davenport is the most capable option for filling that void.

Even after the dreadful loss to USF, Davenport said his team "still has something to play for." It was optimistic talk in the aftermath of a defeat that may cost this team an NIT bid. But come Thursday, Memphis does indeed have something to play for. If three players rise to their best in Orlando, a few ugly memories from a rocky winter can be erased.

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Tigers 90, East Carolina 70

Posted By on Sun, Mar 4, 2018 at 5:52 PM

The Tigers closed out their regular season Sunday afternoon at FedExForum by gaining a measure of revenge for one of their ugliest losses of the season. Kareem Brewton scored 22 points and Mike Parks added 20 as Memphis easily handled the ECU Pirates, a month to the day after losing an overtime game in Greenville, North Carolina.

With the win, the Tigers finish the regular season with an overall record of 19-12, identical to their mark at this stage a year ago. Memphis posted a 10-8 record in the American Athletic Conference, good enough for fifth in the 12-team league. (It's the first 10-win conference season for Tiger coach Tubby Smith since his 2004-05 campaign at Kentucky.)
Tubby Smith
  • Tubby Smith

The Tigers will get another chance to avenge an ugly loss in the first round of the AAC tournament in Orlando. They'll play USF Thursday (1 p.m.), precisely a week after losing by 24 points to the Bulls at home. A win would give Memphis its first 20-win season since 2013-14 and earn a spot in the AAC quarterfinals Friday against Tulsa.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

USF 75, Tigers 51

Posted By on Thu, Mar 1, 2018 at 11:25 PM

So much for life without Jeremiah Martin. After a pair of wins without their star point guard, the Tigers suffered their worst home loss in memory Thursday night at FedExForum. The USF Bulls — 1-15 in the American Athletic Conference and number 295 (out of 351) in the RPI rankings entering the contest — led start-to-finish, taking a 22-point lead at halftime and never allowing the Tigers to close within 20 after the break. The win was the Bulls' second since Christmas and the Tigers' second-worst loss of the season as measured by scoring margin. (They lost by 34 at Cincinnati on New Year's Eve.)
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

Memphis fell to 18-12 with the loss and is now 9-8 in league play. Much, if not all, of the spirit built over a four-game winning streak was broken by the beat-down at the hands of the Bulls. You could see it in a disconsolate coach Tubby Smith after the game, and hear it in the words he spoke. "I'm really disappointed in us," he said. "I obviously did something wrong in preparing for this game. We weren't ready. Physically or mentally. We went through pretty the same routines we normally go through. But I give [USF] credit. They played hard, and we didn't respond."

The Tigers had more turnovers (10) than field goals (8) at halftime. Forward Payton Banks hit four of six three-point attempts in the first half to help the Bulls gain separation. More often than not, Tiger defenders dropped under screens as opposed to fighting over them to crowd USF's long-distance shooters. Banks finished with a game-high 19 points, a total matched by reserve forward Malik Martin, who connected on eight of ten field-goal attempts.

The Tigers couldn't find their shooting touch from anywhere on the court. They missed 10 of 18 free-throw attempts and 16 of 19 three-point shots. Kareem Brewon — Martin's replacement at point guard — missed nine of ten shots from the field. Brewton, Jamal Johnson, and Raynere Thornton missed all 11 of their combined three-point attempts. (Thornton had hit nine of 11 treys in the Tigers' last two wins to earn the AAC's Player of the Week honors.) Junior forward Kyvon Davenport led Memphis with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Senior forward Jimario Rivers scored 11 points in his penultimate game at FedExForum.

"Some guys looked at this game as an easy win," acknowledged Rivers. "Look at their record. But that's something we can't do. It's a matter of us focusing."

"We gave them too many uncontested shots," added Davenport. "We definitely played bad, but it's nothing to hang your head about. We still have something to play for."

About all the Tigers have left to play for is an AAC tournament championship, and the unlikely NCAA tournament bid such a run would provide. Thursday's loss all but eliminates the Tigers' chances of a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.

"You gotta guard against prosperity," said Smith. "You have to appeal to their pride, of getting better every day. You gotta practice harder, to get mentally ready, tougher. They out-toughed us. They made shots early, and we had no answer."

A lopsided, disjointed regular season will come to a close Sunday when East Carolina visits FedExForum. The lowly Pirates beat Memphis in overtime on February 3rd.

"I hope this got their attention," said Smith. "Hopefully a new vision, a new spirit. It's going to be tough. I'm at a loss. We tried to duplicate how we won those games [during the streak]. But we didn't have energy. They were better than we were in every facet of the game."

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Tigers 83, UConn 79

Posted By on Sun, Feb 25, 2018 at 5:34 PM

Playing their first game since point guard Jeremiah Martin's season ended, the Tigers extended their winning streak to four games with their fifth road win of the season in Storrs, Connecticut. Memphis took control with a 28-8 run over the last nine minutes of the first half, boosted by the three-point shooting of freshman Jamal Johnson and junior Malik Rhodes. The Tigers withstood an extended Husky rally over the game's final eight minutes, one that saw their lead shrink from 22 points to four.

The win improves the Tigers' overall record to 18-11 and Memphis now occupies sole possession of fifth place in the 12-team American Athletic Conference with a 9-7 mark. UConn falls to 13-16 (6-10 in the AAC) with its second loss to the Tigers this season.

Johnson and Mike Parks led the Tigers with 18 points each, Johnson hitting four three-pointers and tying his season high in the scoring column. Junior Raynere Thornton came off the bench and added 16 points, hitting five of six shots from three-point range (after making four of five long-distance attempts in the Tigers' win over Houston last Thursday). Taking over the point-guard chores from Martin, Kareem Brewton contributed 12 points and seven assists.

Jalen Adams led the Huskies with 25 points and Christian Vital added 19.

The Tigers combined to make 11 three-pointers, their second-most this season and most in AAC play.

Memphis will have a chance to reach 20 wins for the first time since the 2013-14 season when they host the AAC's two weakest teams in early March. USF visits this Thursday, followed by a tilt with East Carolina on March 4th. The Pirates beat Memphis in North Carolina on February 3rd.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tigers 91, #23 Houston 85

Posted By on Thu, Feb 22, 2018 at 11:59 PM

Unlikely. Unscripted. Unexpected. And purely gratifying.

With their star point guard being fitted for a walking boot, the Memphis Tigers erased a nine-point deficit over the game's final 16 minutes and upset the 23rd-ranked Houston Cougars Thursday night at FedExForum. Junior swingman Raynere Thornton came off the bench and scored a season-high 21 points (four of five from three-point range) in just 19 minutes of playing time to lead the way along with senior forward Jimario Rivers, who scored a career-high 21 points of his own. The two players combined to hit 17 of 18 free throws, every one of them critical in the biggest win in two years under coach Tubby Smith.

Memphis improves to 17-11 with the victory and 8-7 in the American Athletic Conference while Houston's five-game winning streak ends, leaving the Cougars with a 21-6 record (11-4 in the AAC). Rob Gray led Houston with 30 points.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jimario Rivers

"It was a great win for us," said Smith after the game, having changed his shirt following a postgame locker-room drenching. "I can't say enough about our kids. They raised their level of play, raised their level of intensity. Especially after Jeremiah [Martin] went down. Walking out at halftime, I said, 'We're gonna win this one for you.' We had outstanding effort throughout the lineup. Most complete game we've had all year long."

Memphis point guard Jeremiah Martin — the AAC's top scorer — limped off the court with 5:16 left to play in the first half. He turned an ankle with his team down 31-24 and would not return to action. (Martin scored nine points, dropping his average from 19.3 to 18.9.) The injury, it turned out, only added to the dramatic effect of the Tigers' first win over an AP-ranked opponent under Smith. (Memphis beat Final Four-bound South Carolina in December 2016, but the Gamecocks were ranked only in the coaches' poll.)

Playing before a louder-than-they-looked crowd (announced attendance: 6,536), the Tigers stayed within competitive distance through halftime (down 43-39), but looked to be a beaten team when the Cougars surged early in the second half to a 58-49 lead. But a pair of Thornton free throws at the 10:52 mark put the Tigers in front (63-62). Back-to-back three-pointers by Thornton and junior guard Malik Rhodes put Memphis up by six (74-68) with 7:11 to play. The three points were the first for Rhodes since his return from a two-game suspension for a violation of team policy.

The Cougars closed within four points with a minute to play, but Thornton and Rhodes each hit a pair of free throws in the final minute to secure the win. The Tigers outscored Houston 42-27 over the game's final 15:40 to clinch an 18th consecutive winning season for the program.

"Jeremiah's a great player, but when he went down, we fought for one another," said Rivers. "We tried to get as many stops as we could. If we moved the ball on offense, we knew we could score."

Smith said the key to Thornton's long-distance shooting touch is an age-old tip: look at the rim, not the ball. "I've been putting up more shots after practice," said Thornton. "Building my confidence."

Rhodes was especially pleased to join a postgame press conference, even if it meant discussing his recent punishment. "My teammates have been there for me, from the day I got suspended," he said. "They told me I just have to keep proving myself. That three felt good."

"I hope it inspires them to listen," emphasized Smith. "They did a good job of following the game plan. That's the toughest thing for them, staying focused for an extended period of time. They did that tonight. You've got to play with emotion, but without being emotional. That's been a real challenge for us. Act like you've been here before. You're supposed to make that three. You're supposed to make that stop. That's what we taught you to do."

The Tigers' three remaining regular-season games are against teams below them in the AAC standings. Pay no attention to underdogs and favorites, at least not with Smith in the room. "I expect them to be better," said Smith. "This is certainly going to build confidence. It's gonna build confidence in me, that I can play Malik Rhodes. That Raynere Thornton is making shots. They can get the job done when they're put in a position to do it.

"They won't be looking past tomorrow. They just won't. They'll want to, but I won't let it happen. I've been in this business 45 years. I'm secure in who I am, and I'm pretty damn successful at what I do."

The Tigers travel to Connecticut for their next game, where they'll face the Huskies this Sunday. They'll finish the regular season by hosting USF on March 1st and East Carolina on March 4th.

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