Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Pennyspeak

Posted By on Tue, Jun 11, 2019 at 9:07 AM

I'm growing rather fluent in Pennyspeak. If you've been listening to Memphis Tiger basketball coach Penny Hardaway since he took over the program 15 months ago, you're likely speaking the language, too. It's a refreshing alternative to "coachspeak," the more typical say-one-thing-but-mean-another form of phrasing we hear every winter from coaches too timid to intimidate or too skittish to scare.

Having secured the top-ranked recruiting class in the nation after his first season as a college coach, Hardaway met with a group of media types last month to discuss the extraordinary group of talent on its way to Memphis. You may have heard what he said, but let's go a little further: What did Hardaway want us to hear?
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"What we've been able to do this summer is amazing. It's a blessing. I wanted this so badly. To do this in such a short period of time . . . I thank God for the opportunity."


Hardaway is grateful, indeed, to be making a difference, you might say, in his hometown, and at his alma mater. He also knows he's very good at this recruiting game. God didn't convince the country's top recruit (James Wiseman) to stay home and play for the Tigers, and He didn't persuade another five-star recruit (Precious Achiuwa) to play a supporting role to Wiseman. That was the man in the fancy suit and custom sneakers.

"They're saying they're gonna sacrifice — for one another — so they can all achieve the bigger goal."

This is going to be micro-analyzed until Opening Night in November, and rightfully so: With only one basketball and 200 player-minutes per game, can seven freshmen stars co-exist? Don't discount the role social media plays in the gathering of a modern college basketball team, the connectedness that can be achieved — at least in the minds of young men — before a team first assembles on a court. Wiseman, Achiuwa, Lester Quinones, and Boogie Ellis were sharing thoughts and views in a group chat long before the commitment letters were signed. Before they agreed to become teammates and play for Hardaway, they had to agree on the idea of being teammates, sharing a uniform, and yes, sacrificing some minutes on the floor for the greater good, the bigger goal. And do you wonder if these players recognized the fan support, the desire in Memphis to see this super-class become reality? Well, they did.

"This is Memphis. We don't bluff. We want all the smoke. We want everything to be about Memphis. That's what this city wants. We want to win a national championship."

Forget incremental program-building under Hardaway. The Tigers haven't won so much as a conference championship since the 2012-13 season. It's now been five years without an NCAA tournament appearance for the Tiger program. But Hardaway is about now. He'd be a great spokesman for the mindfulness movement, the notion that scars of the past or possibilities of the future only interfere with being the best you can be right now. Make the next breath you take your most important. Make your next decision one of impact. And shy away from nothing. Those who lower the bar of expectations tend to stumble over that lowered bar.

"I'm different. We're different. We're an NBA staff . . . in college."

There's an arrogance to this, no question. The fact is, Hardaway is not coaching an NBA team. His assistants aren't sharpening the skills of NBA players. But to win in the world of college basketball on the scale Hardaway wants to win, you better sell your program as a connector to The League. We may soon see the end of the "one-and-done" absurdity, a new era in which high school superstars can leap straight to the NBA if they choose (and are chosen). But there are only 60 selections made each year in the NBA draft. Do the math on that, with 347 Division I college teams and thousands of high school programs. It's still hard to reach the NBA. Elite college coaches must establish themselves as conduits.

"It's been like daydreaming, just thinking about the matchups you can put on the floor."

Get used to the words positionless basketball. They may as well have been copyrighted by the Golden State Warriors. Ellis will be the Tigers' point guard next season, unless the ball is in the hands of Quinones, or Tyler Harris, or Alex Lomax. Malcolm Dandridge may look like a power forward in warm-ups, but what do we call him when he's the largest Tiger on the floor, when "small ball" becomes the mode of attack? And call James Wiseman a "center" if you want to sound like it's 1995. Hardaway has so many options in distributing those 200 player-minutes on game night. Expect his rotation — to say nothing of his starting five — to be as fluid as the body of water rolling south just a few blocks west of his team's arena. Rivers were made for daydreaming, right?

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Monday, March 25, 2019

Memory Maker

Posted By on Mon, Mar 25, 2019 at 10:20 AM

What makes a memorable basketball season? A championship, sure. A lengthy postseason run helps. The 2018-19 Memphis Tigers did not win a championship, and two games in the NIT don't qualify as lengthy or the kind of postseason run this region desires. The 2018-19 Memphis Tigers, though, will be a team this region of college basketball fans never forgets.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

The hiring of a Bluff City icon to coach the team proved to be an adrenaline shot to the heart of a not-quite-dead program, one that counted more empty seats than full on game nights under the watch of previous coach, Tubby Smith. A goose-bump-inducing pregame video (thank you, Running Pony) and a p.a. introduction straight from pro wrestling — "and coaching your Memphis Tigers, PENNNNNNNNY HARDAWAY!" — made game nights this winter major events before the basketball had been tossed for the opening tip. After averaging 6,225 in ticket sales for 19 regular-season home games in 2017-18, Penny's first team sold an average of 15,516 for 17 games. Hardaway is a master sneaker salesman. No penny loafers with his suits. But he proved to be a human cash register for a program swimming in red ink.

And Penny had fun in his new, self-generated spotlight. At times, he punched beyond his weight class (for now). "Rick Barnes? Get the f**k outta here." Established coaches with highly ranked programs did not intimidate a man willing to hire a former NBA Coach of the Year (Sam Mitchell) as an assistant. Having kept a relatively quiet profile since retiring from the NBA a decade ago, Hardaway couldn't have been more receptive and open to the media, going so far as to pose for a selfie with an out-of-town fan who snuck his way into a postgame press conference. He appeared on ESPN segments and a feature in Sports Illustrated. Hardaway made Memphis Tigers basketball matter again.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

What the Tiger legend didn't realize on opening night last November was that he was suiting up another Tiger legend in the making. In his last game for the U of M, Jeremiah Martin — like Hardaway, born and bred in Memphis — became the fifth Tiger to score 700 points in a season. Martin's coach was the second to do so, and Hardaway's coach (Larry Finch) the first. How's that for a cross-generational season for the ages? The same Mitchell High graduate who averaged 2.7 points as a freshman scored 41 in a single half and became the first Tiger to score 40 in a game twice. Martin finished his career as only the third player to reach the program's top ten in both points and assists. Can a player who never reached the NCAA tournament have his number retired? A few years down the road, Martin's case will be discussed.

The Tigers lost all seven games they played against ranked teams. (Four of those teams have reached the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16.) They didn't belong in the Big Dance, and that's the standard by which Hardaway — and his myriad fans — will measure this program's growth. With the Gatorade National Player of the Year (East High center James Wiseman) on his way, Hardaway has signed one of the top recruiting classes in the country, and he'll need it. You have to go back to the 1993-94 season to find a Tiger team that had to replace all five starters. (One of those departed starters was Hardaway.) And the path to an American Athletic Conference championship won't get easier, not with Penny's program now a target for 11 other teams.

Transition years are rarely comfortable, even when they double as a homecoming for a living, breathing civic treasure. Hardaway is now a veteran college basketball coach. He has a season to study his own growth as a leader, as the face of a movement. And find ways to get better. The guess here is that the 2019-20 Memphis Tigers will make an impact beyond the Mid-South. A fan base has been counting the days 'til Wiseman's debut since the big man signed. But the first order of business for next season's Tigers will be to match the community-wide delight brought by their predecessors. It'll be a tough act to follow.

Friday, March 22, 2019

NIT: Creighton 79, Tigers 67

Posted By on Fri, Mar 22, 2019 at 9:46 PM

The first season of the Coach Penny Hardaway Era at Memphis is in the books. The Tigers' season came to a close Friday night in Omaha, Nebraska, at the hands of the Creighton Bluejays in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament. All five Creighton starters scored at least 11 points in a game that saw the Tigers all but erase a 17-point second-half deficit before surrendering a late 10-0 run that proved decisive for the Bluejays.
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The five Memphis starters — Jeremiah Martin, Kareem Brewton Jr., Kyvon Davenport, Raynere Thornton, and Mike Parks Jr. — played their final games in Tiger blue and gray. (All but Martin were brought to Memphis as transfers by former coach Tubby Smith.) Martin scored a game-high 20 points and became only the fifth Memphis player to score 700 points in a season. (Hardaway was the second in 1992-93.)

Martin's scoring and a pressing defense allowed the U of M to close within two points (54-52) with just over ten minutes to play in the game. Thornton and freshman Tyler Harris each drew offensive fouls to help fuel the surge. But the comeback stalled shortly after Davenport fouled out with more than eight minutes still on the clock. Harris finished with 11 points and fellow freshman Alex Lomax added 10.

Creighton improves to 20-14 and will face the winner of Sunday's TCU-Nebraska game in the NIT quarterfinals. The Tigers finish the season 22-14, the program's most wins since the 2013-14 campaign, the last time Memphis reached the NCAA tournament.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

NIT: Tigers 74, San Diego 60

Posted By on Tue, Mar 19, 2019 at 10:20 PM

Don't tell a team with no postseason experience that the NIT is a disappointment. Five Tiger seniors took the floor for the opening tip Tuesday night at FedExForum having never appeared in a game beyond a conference tournament. In hosting the first NIT game at FedExForum since 2010, the Tigers ended a four-year playoff drought, extended the transcendent career of senior Jeremiah Martin, and allowed first-year coach Penny Hardaway to continue the dialogue of competing for a championship.
Tyler Harris - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Tyler Harris

"I'm a little upset that I couldn't get the seniors to the NCAA tournament," said Hardaway after the game. "But the NIT is a blessing, so they can extend their careers. They're still going to be on TV. The season's still going. I'm excited to be here right now, instead of being home."

"I'm blessed for the opportunity to keep playing with my brothers," added Martin. "Just trying to get a championship back to Memphis." In scoring a game-high 21 points, Martin became the 10th Tiger to score 1,600 for his career and he's now 12 points shy of becoming only the fifth Memphis player to score 700 points in a single season. Senior forward Kyvon Davenport added 16 points to match freshman Tyler Harris's total for the contest. Memphis improves to 22-13 for the season and will face Creighton (19-14) in the second round ("sweet 16") of the NIT.

"It was almost like [the crowd] was expecting us to win, because we've been winning at home so much," noted Hardaway. "They were appreciating the players — the seniors — in case this was our last game at home." Announced attendance was 8,138, just more than half the team's average (15,516) for 17 regular-season games. Counting games in the American Athletic Conference tournament and Thursday night's win, Memphis is 18-3 at home this season.

The Tigers fell behind early (8-6), but enjoyed an 18-2 run keyed by three Harris three-pointers to take the lead for good. The Toreros responded with an 18-5 run of their own to close the margin to a single point (29-28), but they never regained the lead. A 10-2 Memphis spurt early in the second half essentially put the game out of reach (47-32) for the visitors from the West Coast Conference. San Diego's top scorer, Isaiah Pineiro, was held to eight points (four for 15 from the field) and the Toreros committed 22 turnovers.

"It's great when Tyler comes in hot, and takes pressure off [Martin and Davenport]," said Hardaway. "We need those guys to play well. They're our three weapons."

"If it's my last game [at FedExForum], I'm gonna be happy," said Martin, "because we got a win. If Houston had been our last game, how would we feel? But we came back and got a win, so I feel great."

With 12 points in the Tigers' next game, Jeremiah Martin would join the following four Tigers in the single-season 700-point club:

Larry Finch — 721 (1972-73)
Penny Hardaway — 729 (1992-93)
Dajuan Wagner — 762 (2001-02)
Chris Douglas-Roberts — 724 (2007-08)

Monday, March 18, 2019

Memphis Tigers' NIT History

Posted By on Mon, Mar 18, 2019 at 10:17 AM

1957 — Beat Utah, Manhattan, and St. Bonaventure to advance to the championship game at Madison Square Garden, where the 16th-ranked Tigers fell against 19th-ranked Bradley, 84-83.
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1960 — Lost to Providence

1961 — Lost to Holy Cross

1963 — Beat Fordham and lost to Canisius

1967 — Lost to Providence

1972 — Lost to Oral Roberts

1974 — Beat Seton Hall and lost to Utah

1975 — Lost to Oral Roberts

1977 — Lost to Alabama

1990 — Lost to Tennessee (in Memphis)

1991 — Beat UAB and lost to Arkansas State

1997 — Lost to UNLV (Larry Finch's final game as head coach)

1998 — Beat Ball State and lost to Fresno State

2001 — Beat Utah, UTEP, and New Mexico to advance to semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Lost to Tulsa (and beat Detroit in 3rd-place game).

2002 — Beat UNC-Greensboro, BYU, and Tennessee Tech to advance to semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Beat Temple and South Carolina to win championship.

2005 — Beat Northeastern, Virginia Tech, and Vanderbilt to advance to semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Lost to St. Joseph's.

2010 — Beat St. John's and lost to Ole Miss (in Oxford).

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Saturday, March 16, 2019

AAC Semifinals: #11 Houston 61, Tigers 58

Posted By on Sat, Mar 16, 2019 at 6:21 PM

An already uncomfortable drought for University of Memphis basketball fans grew by a year Saturday afternoon at FedExForum. In falling to the 11th-ranked Houston Cougars in the semifinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament, the Tigers fell short of an NCAA tournament berth for a fifth straight season. Having climbed into the program's top 10 for both career points and assists, senior Jeremiah Martin must now wait for the possibility of an NIT appearance, his name now in the discussion of the greatest Tiger to never appear in the Big Dance.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

"We understood what they were gonna do," said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway after the loss. "They come out hard, and play for 40 minutes. We just didn't meet the challenge. We fought hard, and I'm proud of the guys for staying in the game. We just made too many mistakes in the game plan."

Houston had a nine-point lead midway through the first half and led by 10 (36-26) at halftime. After a Tiger spurt to open the second half closed the margin to five points (36-31), the Cougars quickly regained command with five points in 40 seconds. Houston led by double digits for most of the second half until Memphis began a 10-1 run at the five-minute mark. Both Martin and freshman guard Tyler Harris had open looks at three-pointers to tie the game in the final thirty seconds but were unable to connect. Despite not scoring a point over the game's final 3:47, Houston secured the win to advance to Sunday's championship game. The Cougars are now 31-2 while the Tigers fell to 21-13.

Hardaway hopes for that NIT bid, primarily for the chance to extend Martin's career. "[Jeremiah] has been our savior, honestly," he said. "He put us on his back. We played him a ton of minutes, this last month and a half. He's been here four years and will go down as one of the better guards we've had. I hope his season isn't over."

Martin managed to score 23 points despite shooting 5-for-24 from the field. (He hit 12 of 14 free throws.) "He's a veteran," acknowledged Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. "Lot of moxie." Overall, the Tigers hit only 16 of 68 shots (24 percent) from the field. They stayed in the contest at the foul line, where they connected on 22 of 26 attempts and Houston missed 13 of 27. After contributing mightily to the Tigers' quarterfinal upset of UCF Friday, the Tiger bench contributed only 13 points Saturday, with both Isaiah Maurice and Harris held scoreless.
Penny Hardaway - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway

Senior forward Kyvon Davenport was limited by soreness in one of his legs, an injury Hardaway only learned about prior to tip-off. Davenport scored eight points in 26 minutes, but was not on the floor for the decisive final minute of play.

All-conference guard Corey Davis led the Cougars with 17 points, the only other player besides Martin in double figures.

"I haven't shot well this whole tournament," acknowledged Martin. "Houston is gonna come with physicality. I thought I had the [tying] shot; it just didn't go in."

"I didn't expect to have Rome built in a day," said Hardaway. "I wanted to gradually get better. To be as good as we could be around this time, to be gelling. That's what's happened. The guys have grown a lot. We're more defensive-minded."

"Everything happens for a reason," said Martin when asked about the disappointment of again coming up short of an NCAA tournament big. "I don't question God; He knows my path. If we get into the NIT, I'm gonna go out and play hard, try to win it."

"We had an opportunity," said Hardaway. "We didn't seize the moment, but we put ourselves in position, beating a good UCF team. I want to take the energy I felt going into this game to next season."

The 32-team NIT field will be announced Sunday evening, shortly after the 68-team NCAA tournament field is complete.

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Friday, March 15, 2019

AAC Quarterfinals: Tigers 79, UCF 55

Posted By on Fri, Mar 15, 2019 at 4:47 PM

As the lower seed in Friday's American Athletic Conference quarterfinal at FedExForum, the Tigers wore their road blues. Beyond that, the contest was reminiscent of the teams' last meeting in Memphis, a 20-point victory by the home team (wearing white that day in late January). Junior forward Isaiah Maurice came off the bench and scored a season-high 21 points to lead a dominant Tiger performance, a win that improves the U of M to 21-12 for the season and sets up a clash with 11th-ranked Houston in one of Saturday's semifinals. UCF drops to 23-8 and will now likely be relegated to the NIT field.
Kyvon Davenport - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Kyvon Davenport

"Both teams knew each other well," said Memphis coach Penny Hardaway after the game. "It came down to will. Making shots and making plays. Our team did that the entire game, and I'm proud of them. It's win or go home. Our guys have continued to get better, and their hard work is paying off now."

The Knights jumped out to an 11-4 lead before Hardaway began entering his supporting players. Freshman guard Tyler Harris followed a Maurice three-pointer with one of his own to give the Tigers a 14-11 lead just over eight minutes into the game. Both Maurice (10) and senior forward Kyvon Davenport (12) were in double figures in the scoring column by halftime, when the Tigers led 37-27.

Senior forward Raynere Thornton dropped a three-pointer from the left corner to extend the Tigers' lead to 14 (41-27) not quite three minutes into the second half and another trey from Maurice made it a 20-point margin with just under eight minutes left on the clock.

On the defensive end, the Tigers held UCF guard B.J. Taylor (a first-team all-conference selection) to nine points and Aubrey Dawkins (a second-teamer) to seven (and one-for-ten shooting). Towering Knights center Tacko Fall (7'6") scored 12 points and pulled down 10 rebounds, but was limited to 24 minutes by foul trouble.

Davenport finished with 16 points and Jeremiah Martin scored 13 in the romp. Memphis is now 16-1 against UCF in the Bluff City.

"We're playing desperate," said Hardaway. "We know the road we have to take, and we understand every possession. Counts. We're playing like it."
Penny Hardaway - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway

Hardaway was effusive in praising Davenport, a difference-maker when at the top of his game. "There's no small forward in the country that can stop him," said the coach. "He's almost impossible to guard. I've put a lot of pressure on him. He's shown up at the right time."

"I knew we had to focus, and not let them get out early," added Davenport. "I thought we did a pretty good job. They only had one guy in double figures."

Top-seeded Houston will be a tall order Saturday. The Cougars beat Memphis, 90-77, in Texas on January 6th. The Cougars' only home loss this season came against UCF.

Hardaway welcomes the chance to face Houston in Memphis, even if, officially speaking, FedExForum is "neutral" this week. "It's been a maturation process for all the guys," said Hardaway. "They wanted to be individuals early, do it all on their own. But as the season's gone on, we put our foot down and started playing tougher. They started to buy in. We've made some mental mistakes, but for the most part we're all in."

Tip-off for Saturday's semifinal is scheduled for 2 p.m.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

AAC Tournament: Tigers 83, Tulane 68

Posted By on Thu, Mar 14, 2019 at 5:55 PM

Having finished fifth in the American Athletic Conference, the Tigers barely missed an opening-round bye in this week's tournament at FedExForum. They were grateful Thursday afternoon for the next best thing: a date with Tulane.
Mike Parks Jr. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Parks Jr.

Memphis pulled away early and withstood a poor second half to beat the Green Wave (winless in league play this season) and advance to Friday's quarterfinals where the Tigers will face UCF. Senior guard Jeremiah Martin scored 21 points and joined Elliot Perry and Joe Jackson as the only players in Tiger history to rank among the top 10 in career points and assists. Freshman reserve Tyler Harris connected on four three-pointers to add 12 points, Mike Parks contributed a double-double (14 points, 13 rebounds), and Kyvon Davenport scored 17 points to help Memphis earn its 20th win of the season.

"Tulane had nothing to lose, and they had a week to prepare for us," noted Penny Hardaway after his first postseason win as Tiger coach. "We knew they'd have something for Jeremiah. We got a little away from our game plan, but lucky for us, we were able to get things under control and get a win."

After shooting a blistering 54.5 percent in the first half, the Tigers shot only 36 percent in the second and committed 10 of their 15 turnovers. A Memphis lead that swelled to 23 points (65-42) early in the second half dwindled to nine (77-68) with just over three minutes to play before the Tigers solidified the victory.

"We did what we had to do to win the game," stressed Hardaway. "If you lose the game trying to manage minutes, you don't play tomorrow anyway. It's an early enough game for us to be hydrated and be ready for tomorrow's game. We didn't disrespect Tulane."

Hardaway received a collective spark from the rest of his four-man bench with freshman Alex Lomax drilling an early three-pointer and handing out four assists, Isaiah Maurice scoring seven points, and Antwann Jones handing out three assists.

Caleb Daniels led the Green Wave with 19 points as Tulane finished its season 4-27.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

Hardaway has tried to keep his team in "one-game-at-a-time" mode, despite the entire city discussing the possibility of a four-game winning streak that would earn Memphis an NCAA tournament berth. For such a streak to reach two, the Tigers will have to beat UCF in Friday's quarterfinals (tip-off at 1 p.m.). Memphis beat the Knights by 20 points at FedExForum in January, then lost at UCF (79-72) last month.

"[UCF] might be the hottest team in our league," said Hardaway. "They've had a lot of time to prepare. We're gonna have to hit on all cylinders tomorrow. There's only so much changes you'll make before a conference tournament."

"We're not looking past the game we have right in front of us," added Martin. "We know we have to win four games [to reach the NCAA tournament], but we're taking it one game at a time."

Ironically, the Tigers (now 20-12) opened postseason play in front of the smallest FedExForum crowd they've seen all season (8,046). Nonetheless, Hardaway relished the ovation that greeted his arrival to the court, and especially relishes the arrival of do-or-die basketball. "It got my juices flowing, the way they welcomed me," he said. "No butterflies yet. I look forward to this time of year. I try to stay as calm as I can."

Monday, March 11, 2019

Banner Blues

Posted By on Mon, Mar 11, 2019 at 11:20 AM

Memphis Tiger basketball has a banner problem, and it only begins with the long-absent 2008 Final Four display. Gazing up at the rafters of FedExForum, you'd think an NIT appearance is worth celebrating. Here in Memphis. In 2019. There are no fewer than 17 NIT banners hanging above the Tiger court, diminishing the distinction of the 25 NCAA tournament banners (should be 26) dangling alongside them, in chronological order. If Memphis is going to classify itself as a top-tier basketball program — and fans of the program want to categorize their team with the likes of North Carolina, Kentucky, and Kansas — then the NIT gallery simply must be reduced.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Quickly, which brings happier memories from the Josh Pastner era at Memphis: his 2010 team's appearance in the NIT or perhaps the three consecutive Conference USA tournament championships from 2011 to 2013? While the NIT is all over the dome at Third and Beale, there's no salute anywhere to the 12 conference tournaments the Tigers have won, or the 15 regular-season league championships Memphis can claim. This has to change.

There was a time the NIT meant something, when fewer than 30 teams qualified for the NCAA tournament. So leave the 1957 runner-up banner alone. We'll even keep banners for the three teams under John Calipari that reached the NIT "final four" at Madison Square Garden. But add the other NIT years to a single banner, and hang it to the side of the NCAA tournament collection. On the other side, place a banner with conference-championship years. Perhaps two, one for regular-season titles, the other for tournament victories. The end result will make the NCAA tournament banners more prominent, and leave fans with a proper salute to championships earned before the Big Dance.

• The Tigers will have to win four games in four days this week in the American Athletic Conference tournament to earn a berth in the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years. How formidable is the task? Only once before in the program's history has Memphis so much as played four games in four days. The under-achieving 2004-05 team won three games by double digits before falling to Louisville in an epic Conference USA championship game. (This was the Darius Washington Game.)

Despite playing on their home floor, the Tigers will be underdogs as early as Friday's quarterfinals. There's precedent for a seemingly overmatched Tiger team winning a league tourney. In the 2011 C-USA tournament at El Paso, a Memphis team that went 10-6 in regular-season league play beat Southern Miss, East Carolina, and UTEP (on the Miners' home floor) to cut down the nets and reach the NCAA tournament. But that was merely three wins in three days.

The Tigers' opening-round game against Tulane (0-18 in AAC play) will be a walkover. Memphis will then face UCF in Friday's quarterfinals, having split two games with the Knights this season but thoroughly dominating the affair at FedExForum (a 77-57 Tiger win on January 27th). Should the Tigers reach the semifinals, Houston will likely await, the 12th-ranked Cougars having won the regular-season conference title with an overall record of 29-2. Penny Hardaway is still seeking his first win as a head coach over a ranked team (the Tigers are 0-6). Should it come this weekend in the AAC tournament, a good-but-not-great first season for Hardaway could grow into something special.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Tigers 66, Tulsa 63

Posted By on Sun, Mar 10, 2019 at 12:36 AM

"Jeremiah [Martin] is a humble guy. He never brags about his achievements." — Memphis Tiger guard Tyler Harris.

Not only was Saturday's game at FedExForum Senior Night for the Memphis Tigers, it was played on Jeremiah Martin Day, as proclaimed by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. The lone four-year senior on the Memphis roster, Martin knows how to read a script. So of course he stepped to the free-throw line with 16 seconds left in his team's regular-season finale and buried the two game-clinching free throws.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

"I just feel blessed," said Martin after the game, "and appreciative. When you're loyal and do things the right way, good things happen for you."

The Tigers trailed the Golden Hurricane, 55-54, with under five minutes to play before Martin converted a field goal and two foul shots to regain the lead for Memphis. Freshman guard Tyler Harris stole the ball at mid-court and drove to the basket for a layup and fellow freshman Alex Lomax blocked a shot that led to an Isaiah Maurice jump-hook for a 62-57 Tiger lead with 1:38 to play. But not until Martin hit those final two free throws — extending a two-point lead to four points — did the Tigers secure their 19th win of the season.

"With all the festivities, all the families coming out, it's 50-50," said Tiger coach Penny Hardaway. "They could come out too excited, or too relaxed. We wouldn't have won this game a month ago. We didn't play our best basketball, but we hung our hat on defense tonight instead of offense, and that shows growth. I'm proud of that."

Ugly wins count, and the Tigers gained a measure of revenge against a Tulsa team that beat them by 16 points on January 30th. They won despite missing 10 free throws, missing 20 of 24 three-point attempts, and committing more turnovers (16) than assists (12). Martin had what he described as an off night, still scoring a game-high 20 points and dishing out six assists. Harris was the only other Tiger in double figures in the scoring column with 16 points.

"We've been talking about changing the tone of who we are, really since we got back from South Florida [in early February]," said Hardaway. "Once everybody rededicated themselves to what they needed to do, we started playing better basketball. They're buying in. They know we have to get stops, and we're starting to do that now."

The Tigers finish their first regular season under Hardaway with a record of 19-12 and 11-7 in American Athletic Conference play. They'll enter the upcoming AAC tournament (March 14-17 at FedExForum) as the fifth seed, facing Tulane in their opening game Thursday (tip-off is at 2 p.m.). If they are to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014, they'll have to win four games in four days in a building where they've posted a 15-2 mark this season.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

Hardaway soaked up Senior Night, knowing the heavy lifting ahead. "When [Jeremiah] came out, the energy changed," he said. "I got a little emotional, because I know where he came from. I've been watching Jeremiah since he was in 6th grade. It shows you never give up, you can make it no matter what anyone says. Nobody gave him a chance when he got here, and now he's one of the best guards in the country."

Seniors Kyvon Davenport, Kareem Brewton Jr., Mike Parks Jr., and Raynere Thornton joined Martin in the Tigers' starting lineup after receiving framed jerseys in the pregame ceremony. Memphis is now 7-2 with the five seniors taking the floor for tip-off. But they played supporting roles Saturday night to a Tiger now 18 points from becoming the 10th-leading scorer in Tiger history.

"I went to the barber shop this morning, and everybody was telling me it's my dad," said Martin, ever humble in the postgame press conference. "My phone didn't stop ringing all day. I had to cut my phone off. I'm very honored that the mayor did that for me. I love my city. Everything I do is for it. I love Memphis."

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Monday, March 4, 2019

Jeremiah's Time

Posted By on Mon, Mar 4, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Four Tiger basketball players who transferred to Memphis in 2017 will be saluted this Saturday at FedExForum, and rightfully so. But with due respect to Kareem Brewton Jr., Kyvon Davenport, Mike Parks Jr., and Raynere Thornton, let's call this year's Senior Day what it should be called: Jeremiah Martin Day in Memphis. A Tiger who averaged 2.7 points (and 13.8 minutes) per game as a freshman will likely finish his career among the top ten scorers in Memphis history and 10th in assists. There are precisely two other players over a century of Tiger basketball who rank as highly in both categories: Elliot Perry and Joe Jackson. Last month, the pride of Mitchell High School became the first Tiger to score 40 points in two games in a career (and he came three points shy of doing it a third time). A player who seemed misplaced upon his arrival will leave the program among the most memorable of all time. "It's been a journey," emphasizes Martin, "but it's been great, no regrets. No looking back."
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Martin's journey has included time with three different head coaches: Josh Pastner his freshman season, two years with Tubby Smith, and this season under Penny Hardaway. His first practice was at the Larry Finch Center. His last will be at the extravagant Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center. "It's a different program," says Martin. "Every coach has different philosophies. My first year was a struggle, the transition from high school. Coach Pastner was always on me about playing hard, making myself fit in. I was turned into a full-time point guard; that was one of the hardest parts. Coach Smith was about doing everything the right way. And Coach Hardaway shows us how to be a pro. He and the entire staff emphasize how to be a professional."

Few players in Memphis history personify the concept of development at the college level like Martin. After stumbling as a freshman, Martin took command of the Tiger offense as a sophomore, handing out more than twice as many assists (142) as turnovers (63), then earned second-team all-conference honors in 2018 when he finished second in the American Athletic Conference in scoring (18.9 points per game). He recovered from a foot injury that ended his junior season and today represents his team's only real chance to win the AAC tournament and capture a prize that's eluded him to this point: an NCAA tournament berth.

"The one thing I didn't know he could do is score in volume," says Hardaway. "He averaged 19 points last year, but to score 40 in a half [as Martin did at USF]? To catch fire and catch rhythm like that? That's amazing; he's amazed me this year."

Martin's not at ease discussing his skill set, but acknowledges an improved jump shot magnified his threat on the offensive end. And then there's confidence, the intangible that tends to grow exponentially when a player spends four years in college. "I can play at my own pace," says Martin. "I can get players — on offense or defense — to play at my pace. I can speed them up, or change speeds. I didn't envision myself being the same player I was last year. It comes with putting in the work."

Martin counts Faragi Phillips, his coach at Mitchell (and currently the coach at Whitehaven High School), among those who've made the greatest impact on his rise as a player and person. He remains Memphis to the deepest part of his core, a connection he's relished this winter as the city has come to appreciate and celebrate his remarkable play. "I could've left," says Martin, "but I was loyal to the city, even more than the coaches. I love this city. I get to be with my family."

With a one-year-old daughter, Martin has all the more reason to play near home, but he's prepared for what's next, wherever "next" may be. "I want to play in the NBA," he says. "That's my dream, what drives me. That should be everybody's ultimate goal at this level. I want to be there, long term." Whether or not his name gets called in June's draft, Martin intends to play professionally, if not in the NBA, perhaps the G League or overseas. But for now, there are a few more games in blue and gray. Jeremiah Martin will finish his Tiger career as living proof that some stars shine brightest when not born, but made.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Tigers 81, Temple 73

Posted By on Wed, Feb 27, 2019 at 12:04 AM

"[Jeremiah Martin] seems confident in himself at this point. He's a driven guy right now." — Temple coach Fran Dunphy

As he nears retirement at the end of the season, longtime Temple coach Fran Dunphy found himself the recipient of a gift basket from the Memphis Tigers before Tuesday night's game at FedExForum. Then, as part of the send-off, Tiger guard Jeremiah Martin did what he's done the entire month of February: score at will.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

Martin's 30 points completed one of the most remarkable individual months in Memphis history and, more importantly, keyed a Tiger victory over a team they're chasing in the American Athletic Conference standings. Martin hit 11 of 16 shots from the field, scoring 15 points in both halves to help Memphis avenge a loss at Temple on January 24th. Over eight games in February, Martin averaged 30.6 points to take over the AAC scoring lead. The win improves the Tigers to 18-11 on the season and 10-6 in AAC play, now one game back of the Owls (20-8 and 10-5 in the AAC).

"Martin speaks for himself," said Dunphy after the Tigers completed their fifth win in six games. "He's got so much savvy out there, a wonderful finisher at the rim. He made plays not just for himself, but also for others."

Martin handed out five assists in helping the Tigers erase a 38-33 halftime deficit. He sparked a key 11-2 Tiger run over a three-minute stretch late in the second half, one that increased a three-point Memphis lead (57-54) to twelve points (68-56). His three-point play during the run followed a three-point shot from the left corner by senior forward Kyvon Davenport, who finished the game with 12 points.

"I'm just playing within the flow of the game," said a typically humble Martin after the game. "Overall, it was a well-balanced game. Every game now is a playoff game. I love it; there's pressure. We know what it takes to win a tough game, but we're still learning."

"Temple came here knowing they needed a win," said Tiger coach Penny Hardaway. "They played desperate. They shot really well in the first half, but 37 percent for the entire game. To get this win, I'm proud of them. We shot 57 percent in the second half and that was crucial."

Temple guard Shizz Alston — second only to Martin among AAC scorers, averaging 18.9 points per game — scored 22 points but missed nine of 11 three-point attempts, often guarded by Martin himself.

"When we're right, we're capable of doing some things people thought we couldn't do," said Hardaway. "We're peaking at the right time and able to do some great things moving forward."

Hardaway has sought a collective toughness in his first college team, and seemed to recognize it, particularly late in Tuesday's win. "We've been really grinding it out," said Hardaway, "even in the loss at UCF. We made some mental mistakes, but we showed that we're capable of staying in there, sustaining, and fighting back. Today's game was no different. It was a playoff game in our minds. Temple plays that slow, methodical game, and we hung in there. The toughness is there now."

Freshman guard Antwann Jones came off the Tiger bench and scored 10 points in 19 minutes, his most on the scoreboard since January 10th. Senior forward Raynere Thornton pulled down 11 rebounds and added eight points.

The Tigers travel to Cincinnati for their next game Saturday against the 23rd-ranked Bearcats. It will be March of course, the month for madness in the world of college basketball. All Memphis — both the team and city — can hope for is Jeremiah Martin playing like it's still February.

NOTE: I'll be on the road this weekend and unable to report on the Cincinnati game. I'll be back on press row for the regular-season finale (March 9th) and throughout the AAC tournament (March 14-17).

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Monday, February 25, 2019

A Penny for Your Quotes

Posted By on Mon, Feb 25, 2019 at 9:21 AM

Penny Hardaway's first year as Tiger coach has been memorable, to say the least. A few of the rookie coach's public comments — even those not mentioning Tennessee coach Rick Barnes — should live on.
LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

• "You can't come to practice half-assed, going through the motions. We're trying to get better. How you practice is how you play."
 This remark came after the Tigers' win over East Carolina on January 10th. (I'd never call a crowd "half-assed," but this was among the sleepiest of the season at FedExForum.) Hardaway has had three talented freshmen — Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, and Antwann Jones — in his rotation since the first game of the season, and they've brought as much frustration as delight. On this night, he replaced Harris and Jones in the starting lineup with seniors Kareem Brewton and Kyvon Davenport. Harris came off the bench and scored 16 points and Jones added 10. Message received.

• "Everything magnifies on the road." Hardaway said this, somewhat ironically, after the Tigers' home win over UCF on January 27th. But 20 days after beating the Knights by 20 on their home court, the Tigers lost to the same team, 79-72, in Orlando. They were run off the floor in the first half at Tulsa before outscoring the Golden Hurricane in the second half of a 16-point loss. Then there was the trip to USF when the Tigers spotted the Bulls a 27-1(!) lead before Jeremiah Martin's 41-point second half almost dodged defeat. To date, the Tigers are 4-9 away from FedExForum (3-6 in opponents' buildings). This has to change before any discussions of a nationally ranked team begin.

• "As far as our players, you can't put toughness in someone. You have to go out and battle." You want to climb a Hardaway nerve? Talk to him with the Cincinnati Bearcats nearby. The program that tormented Hardaway as a player is now a standard for him to match as a head coach. A five-point loss to the 25th-ranked team in the country (on February 7th) is no embarrassment. But it's one of five Tiger losses (with no wins) against ranked teams this season. In last week's win over Tulane, Hardaway saw self-doubt in Lomax (a player who has grown up under his guidance), even what he described as "pouting." The freshman didn't play after halftime. Watch this area of Hardaway's development program. If toughness can't be taught, can it be discovered?

• "Last year was not who we were [as a program]. We're headed in the right direction. We're going to higher places, and we'll be there sooner than later." Hardaway was emboldened by his team playing third-ranked Tennessee even (87-87) after falling behind, 15-5. If there was a "moral victory" this season, it came on December 15th. Tennessee brought size, muscle, and big-game experience to FedExForum, and if you ignore the game's first five minutes, the Tigers didn't flinch. This series and other interconference rivalry games are on the way back, which will indeed take Memphis basketball to higher places.

• "I'm gonna try and stay even-keeled, and not get too animated." Hardaway explained why he stood for the entire game after the Tigers' season-opening win over Tennessee Tech. It's his "thinking pose." And Hardaway has blocked much of my view from press row ever since. He's yet to pick up a technical foul. And he's yet to call an official by name (a John Calipari specialty), preferring the universal "ref." With memories of Calipari and the emotive Josh Pastner still vivid, Hardaway's sideline demeanor has transformed the presentation of Memphis basketball. Grounded, focused, determined. With work to be done.

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Saturday, February 23, 2019

Tigers 88, Wichita State 85

Posted By on Sat, Feb 23, 2019 at 11:54 PM

Jeremiah Martin's latest scoring surge helped the Tigers erase a four-point halftime deficit Saturday night at Wichita State and earn their fourth victory of the season away from FedExForum. Martin came up three points shy of his third 40-point outing of the month, drilling nine of 19 shots from the field (including five of eight three-point attempts) and connecting on all 14 of his free throws. The 37 points vaulted Martin past Andre Turner and into 13th on the Memphis alltime scoring chart.
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The Tigers earned their third two-game sweep in American Athletic Conference play by beating the Shockers. (They also swept East Carolina and Tulane.) Memphis improves to 9-6 in the AAC and 17-11 overall. The Tigers trail UCF (9-4) by two games in the loss column for fourth place in the conference, a position that would earn them a bye in the opening round of next month's AAC tournament in Memphis.

Raynere Thornton added 16 points and Kareem Brewton 14 for the Tigers. Memphis shot 46 percent from the field.

Dexter Dennis and Jaime Echenique scored 17 points to the lead the Shockers who fell to 13-13 on the season (6-8 in the AAC).

The win — the Tigers' fourth in five games — clinches a .500 record for Memphis in the AAC. They have three regular-season games remaining on the schedule, the next a home matchup with Temple on Tuesday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Tigers 102, Tulane 76

Posted By on Wed, Feb 20, 2019 at 9:48 PM

The Jeremiah Martin farewell tour rolls on. Eighteen days after scoring 41 points in a single half at USF, the Tigers' senior guard became the first player in Memphis history to top 40 points twice in a season . . . or career. Martin's 43 points — and the 400th assist of his career — led the way Wednesday night in a lopsided win over Tulane at FedExForum.
Jeremiah Martin - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Jeremiah Martin

"Shout-out to God for putting me in this position," said Martin after surpassing Mike Butler for 15th on the Tiger career scoring chart (1,412 points). "My teammates wanted me to get it more than I did. They kept looking for me. Coach left me in and said, 'Get 40.' I tried to go with the flow of the game. At this stage of my career, I just want to get the win, get to the [NCAA] tournament."

The pride of Mitchell High School connected on 15 of 24 shots from the field, including five of nine three-point attempts. He hit eight of 11 free throws in topping 30 points for the sixth time in his career, twice the total of any other Tiger this century. (Chris Douglas-Roberts had three 30-point games in his three-year career.) With eight assists, Martin became the fifth Tiger to land in the program's top-20 for points and top-10 for assists (along with Alvin Wright, Andre Turner, Elliot Perry, and Joe Jackson).

"When he got to about 28 points with about 15 minutes left, I told him to get to 40," said Tiger coach Penny Hardaway. "It wasn't anything to do with Tulane. It was about rewarding Jeremiah for what he's done here for four years."

The Tigers dominated the Green Wave start to finish, their only collective slip a 9-0 Tulane run to close the first half, but that merely reduced the Memphis lead to nine points (47-38). Memphis pulled down 56 rebounds, 21 more than Tulane. The Green Wave shot 38 percent from the field while the Tigers connected on 48 percent of their attempts.

Memphis improves to 16-11 for the season and 8-6 in the American Athletic Conference while Tulane drops to 4-21 (0-13).

Senior forward Kyvon Davenport posted his ninth double-double of the season (10 points and 15 rebounds), and three other Tigers reached double figures in the scoring column in support of Martin: Tyler Harris (16 points), Raynere Thornton (14), and Kareem Brewton (13). But this was an early version of Senior Night for a player who averaged 2.7 points as a freshman three long years (and two coaches) ago.
Penny Hardaway - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway

"I don't try and take a lot of credit," said Hardaway, "but it's our system that's allowed [Martin] to do this, putting him in winning situations. He's doing the work, and he's putting the ball in the basket at a high volume. With us being NBA guys, that's what we do, we've always got big numbers. You try to make his job easy, get him easy looks."

Tiger assistant coach Tony Madlock pointed out to the team that if it wins the rest of its home games this season, an NCAA tournament berth awaits. The catch, of course, is that an automatic tournament bid goes to the winner of the AAC tournament, which will be played at FedExForum. Basic match, but a healthy motivator as February leans toward March.

"My whole goal with this team is to build," added Hardaway, "to be sharp for the AAC tournament [March 14-17]. We want to be in the top four, and have a bye on the first day. We have the opportunity to do something special here, but we have to get the rotation down and be on our stuff."
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