"Right now, it's tough. But it's not impossible." — Penny Hardaway
Go ahead and cry a river for Penny Hardaway and his Memphis Tigers. A Top-10 team the first week in January, the Tigers now find themselves in the home stretch of the 2019-20 season without James Wiseman, without D.J. Jeffries, and without a spot even in the Top 25. They sport a still-solid record (17-6), but are considered a "bubble team," at best, among prognosticators drawing up brackets for the 68-team NCAA tournament. With four of their next six games on the road (starting Thursday in Cincinnati), the Tigers must run a gauntlet of villains to reach the promised land for the first time since 2014. How do they do it? Here are four factors to watch.
• Find a floor general.
Quickly: Who is the Tigers' point guard? The ambiguity in your answer, I'm convinced, is related to this team ranking dead last among American Athletic Conference teams in turnover margin and next-to-last in assist-to-turnover ratio. The irony is that the team has four players seemingly capable of seizing the ball when a game grows frenzied: Alex Lomax, Damion Baugh, Boogie Ellis, and Tyler Harris. So why so many sloppy turnovers, so many of the unforced variety that make Hardaway cringe like he's discovered a dog dropping on his welcome mat? (Malcolm Dandridge, let's agree, should not be handling the ball near midcourt, let alone passing it.) The four potential generals are still learning their games still. (Yes, a college sophomore — like Lomax and Harris — is still a young player.) For this team to reach the Big Dance with any chance of advancing, it must know who will handle the ball in crunch time. Point-guard committees don't cut down nets.
• Make Precious moments.
Lots of them. The damaging loss to USF last Saturday may not have happened had Precious Achiuwa not been sitting on the bench for 12 minutes of the first half, saddled with two fouls. Achiuwa is one of the top two or three freshmen in the country and a finalist for the Julius Erving Award (given to the nation's top small forward). He's been a double-double machine this season (12 of them so far) despite not being a volume shooter. (Achiuwa has taken no more than 10 shots in five of the Tigers' last six games.) Particularly with Jeffries sidelined, the Tiger offense needs to find Achiuwa, if not run through him as the season winds down. He can score in traffic, from mid-range, and even connect from three-point country. Memphis may still be in search of a true point guard, but the team's star has been here all along. And he needs to learn to play with foul trouble. Don't let this season end without maximizing Achiuwa's impact.
• Be angry at tip-off.
The Tigers don't start fast. They really haven't in two seasons under Hardaway. A lead at the first media timeout (four minutes into a game) is as rare as a Louisville t-shirt at FedExForum. Particularly on the road, this has to change. Temple coach Aaron McKie said last week that his first priority in game-planning for Memphis was to take the crowd out of the game. The Owls indeed scored the game's first six points and led (8-7) at the first media timeout. They just aren't built to last with a team as talented as the current Tigers. Hardaway must instill in his team the importance of not climbing Comeback Mountain before halftime. Perhaps this means slowing the pace of play immediately after tip-off. Perhaps it means getting to the foul line. Crowds at Cincinnati, Connecticut, SMU, and Tulane are ready to chew this "overrated" team up if they start slowly.
• Set a Cougar trap.
TheTigers' best chance to regain support for an NCAA tournament berth would be to sweep Houston. Memphis will host the Cougars on February 22nd (one of two home games in the upcoming six-game stretch) then play in Texas in the regular-season finale on March 8th. Houston is the only AAC team currently ranked and just destroyed a team (Wichita State) that has been ranked (and handled Memphis). The Tigers must establish themselves among the top two or three teams in their league. Winning these two cat fights would accomplish that.