The Tigers win over Little Rock Wednesday night at FedExForum can be looked at in one of two ways. Memphis improved to 4-1 on the season despite falling behind the Trojans 9-0 and again shooting the ball miserably (5 for 21) from three-point range. Or you can look at the win improving the Tigers to 2-0 without one James Wiseman, with 10 games remaining on what has been established as a 12-game suspension for the country's top-ranked freshman. (The NCAA announced the penalty shortly before Wednesday's tip-off, a nine-game suspension extended to 12 games because Wiseman appeared in three after being initially classified as ineligible. Follow?)
"It's business as usual," said Tiger coach Penny Hardaway during his post-game press conference, yielding no emotion in answering questions about his reaction — or his team's — to the suspension. "I'm glad to have a number [of games]," acknowledged Hardaway, while adding, "I think James should be on the floor."
The Tigers could have used Wiseman against Little Rock, especially early in the game when they missed their first eight shots and committed nine turnovers by the midway point of the first half. Down 17-9 with just over eight minutes to play before halftime, the Tigers gained a spark from freshman forward D.J. Jeffries
who hit six of nine shots and scored 15 points in 12 minutes off the bench before the break.
Having taken a 28-23 lead at the half, Memphis extended the advantage to 10 points (35-25) early in the second half and never trailed again. The Trojans pulled within four points (58-54) with less than four minutes to play, but Precious Achiuwa
attacked the rim for a dunk, stole the ball near midcourt, and fed Lester Quinones
for a layup to double the lead and secure the win. Achiuwa finished with his first college double-double (16 points and 12 rebounds) in 30 minutes of action.
"Kinda got the feeling that these kids were taking Little Rock for granted," said Hardaway in describing the pregame atmosphere in the Tiger locker room. "It wasn't the same energy. Don't know why. Don't have any excuses. I'm kind of glad we got behind early; I wanted to see what my team is made of. I wanted to see who was ready for the moment. We knew Little Rock would be pretty solid. I was pleased that we ended the game really well."
(7 points, 7 assists, 4 steals) and Isaiah Maurice
(9 rebounds, 4 blocks in 15 minutes) provided support in the comeback win, suggesting the group effort required to fill a void like Wiseman's. But outside shooting remains a trouble spot, the Tigers now having hit only 13 of 60 three-point attempts over their last three games.
"They've just got to keep shooting," said Hardaway. "I think it's in their heads now, because they're turning down shots. If you're shooter, you gotta shoot until you make. I don't want them turning down shots to drive into the lane. You gotta shoot with confidence."
The Tigers return to FedExForum Saturday for a noon contest with Ole Miss. It will be the first of four games against "Power Five" competition during the Wiseman suspension, with North Carolina State (November 28th), Tennessee (December 14th), and Georgia (January 4th) looming. The U of M is appealing the penalty, according to a press release, the hope being a reduction in the number of games Wiseman must watch from the Tiger bench.
"Guys gotta grow up," said Hardaway in looking at the next 10 games without his star center. "That energy James brought — offensively and defensively — is not going to be there. It's going to be huge for us to get the game plan, go out there with the energy, and do it collectively, as a group. Depend on each other, and be confident we can go out there and get it done."