Memphis opened American Athletic Conference play Thursday night at FedExForum with variables both known and unknown. Having completed their nonconference slate of 13 games, the Tigers know they have a veteran playmaker and leader in senior Jeremiah Martin. In Tyler Harris, they know they have a freshman with a scorer's frame of mind (whether or not he's on target). But what's to be made of players like Antwann Jones
, Alex Lomax
, or Mike Parks
? Swing variables — like that trio — tend to steer a season one direction or another.
Jones, Lomax, and Parks played significant roles in helping the Tigers beat Wichita State to complete a 6-1 homestand and extend their current winning streak to four games. A sloppy opening five minutes gave way to the accelerated pace Memphis has shown under rookie coach Penny Hardaway. Lomax converted a steal into a layup to cap a 9-0 Tiger run and give Memphis a 29-20 lead with 4:15 to play before halftime. The Shockers closed the margin to five points (46-41) early in the second half, but the Tigers never surrendered the lead in avenging a 20-point loss to Wichita State a year ago. (The Shockers return no starters from their 2018 NCAA tournament team.)
"I'm proud of the effort, overall," said a hoarse Hardaway after the game. "We had some mental lapses, but we overcame that with hustle and came away with a great victory. This game meant more to Alex Lomax than anybody, because of his [previous] ties to Wichita State. And Antwann Jones . . . what can you say about him? He's just a talent. We've been waiting for him to come around."
Lomax stuffed the stat sheet off the Tiger bench with eight points, a team-leading eight rebounds, five assists, and three steals in 25 minutes. Fellow-freshman Jones scored a season-high 16 points in just 21 minutes, connecting on seven of nine shots from the field, including a few among larger defenders in the paint. "Back in my YMCA days," said Jones, "I played the five [position], so I'm comfortable [down low]."
Parks converted a pair of reverse layups in the first half and hit all four of his field-goal attempts to go along with four rebounds and three steals. Hardaway emphasized that the inconsistent senior is physically healthy, noting only "a mental thing" hindering his becoming an integral part of the Tiger rotation.
Senior Kvon Davenport
had his finest game since cutting his signature dreadlocks, scoring a game-high 25 points in 27 minutes off the Memphis bench. He hit nine of 11 free throws, boosting a huge advantage for the Tigers from the charity stripe. (The Tigers made 25 of 31 shots while the Shockers only took — and made — six.)
"We scored 85 points on an off night," noted Hardaway, whose team had scored at least 90 points in its previous five games, a streak unmatched by a Memphis squad since the 1975-76 season. "Our offensive woes don't worry me, because I feel like we'll be able to turn it on at any time."
The Tigers won the rebounding battle, 35-29, impressing Hardaway with the toughness necessary to win league clashes. "That's a different Memphis than they're used to seeing," said Hardaway. "They've only been in the league one year, but last year they kind of had their way with the team physically. To be able to take that physicality, and put it back on them, I'm definitely proud of that. We want to grow in that category."
Markis McDuffie led the Shockers with 19 points but needed 17 shots to match his season scoring average. The loss drops Wichita State to 7-6.
Now 9-5, the Tigers will play their first road game in over a month when they travel to 19th-ranked Houston Sunday. Memphis is 0-3 against ranked teams this season.