In two seasons as a college basketball player, the longest winning streak Penny Hardaway enjoyed was six games (in 1993, a season he earned first-team All-America recognition). Merely 14 games into his second season as a college basketball coach, Hardaway has overseen a ten-game winning streak, his pack of freshmen (and three key veterans) having climbed into the nation's Top 10. Beyond the James Wiseman saga, what will we remember about the Tigers' season to date? And what does it suggest for this team's fate come March?
• "Chemistry is everything with a young team."
Hardaway spoke these words after the Tigers beat Tulane on December 30th for their 10th straight win (and first in American Athletic Conference play). Memphis opened the game poorly, falling behind 13-4 to a team charged to play in FedExForum (particularly former Tiger K.J. Lawson). But by halftime the Tigers led by 10 points. They withstood a late threat by the visitors, Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax — gasp, sophomores!
— coming up big in the waning minutes. Five Tigers scored at least a dozen points and the team dished out 24 assists. Funny, but when a group of basketball players don't care who scores, the team tends to score a lot. Despite playing their first season together, the 2019-20 Tigers seem to enjoy the shared mission. This will be important when roadblocks appear.
• A veteran bench goes a long way.
By "veteran," I mean the lone senior (Isaiah Maurice) and those two sophomores in Hardaway's rotation. Maurice started against the Green Wave, but played only six minutes. (Lester Quinones came off the bench and played 27 minutes.) Four of the Tiger starters were on the minus side of the plus-minus metric (scoring differential when a player is on the floor), while Harris (plus-19) and Lomax (plus-27) were the difference-makers in the victory. Lomax in particular has become Hardaway's stabilizer, contributing on the offensive end (eight assists against Tulane) and defensively when things get frenzied. Whether Quinones continues to come off the bench or (more likely) Maurice fills a reserve role, the Tigers' depth is, as Hardaway puts it, making it "hard to guard us." It's hard to envision one slumping shooter damaging the Tigers' chances on game night. (Now a quartet
of slumping shooters is a different story, one that cost Memphis a win last Saturday against Georgia.)
• Mr. D.J.
The Tigers are 10-1 without Wiseman, and 0-1 without D.J. Jeffries. The small forward has been the team's most consistent stat-sheet-stuffer, but missed the Georgia game with flu-like symptoms. Let's ease out on that limb and say the Tigers can't afford a long-term loss of their starting small forward. Jeffries has scored at least 10 points in 11 of his 13 games. His season-highs include nine rebounds, eight assists, four blocks, and three steals. He's shooting 56 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range. The Olive Branch native somehow arrived in the shadow of Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, but he's vying for MVP honors for this year's team and is critical to hopes of another lengthy winning streak.
• Traveling band.
The Tigers have only two more home games in January, with four on the road, starting Thursday night at Wichita State (the only other AAC team currently in the AP rankings). Road trips are often where a team's kinks can be addressed, shortcomings either minimized or erased. Fewer family and friends in the stands means focus on the mission at hand, for now the program's first regular-season AAC championship.
"I'm gonna dig in deeper," said Hardaway after the Georgia loss. "We're not gonna go crazy, but we'll be better prepared for [the Wichita State] game."
The second-year coach continues to emphasize ball-sharing, the unselfish play so evident in that win over Tulane. When cracks appear in that team-first approach, the Tigers suffer.
"We take the man-to-man challenge," noted Hardaway, "instead of getting a teammate involved."
Look for more than 10 assists (the Tigers' total against Georgia) in games to come.
• POY watch.
No Tiger has yet won the AAC's Player of the Year award, so it will be interesting to follow candidates with this year's team, particularly Achiuwa. Currently the league's leading rebounder (10.2 per game), Achiuwa kept Memphis in the Georgia game with 20 points and 15 rebounds, his seventh double-double of the season. His 14.6 points per game are seventh in the league and he passes every eye test, often looking like the first-round NBA draft pick he's projected to be. Does he want to make his lone college season unforgettable? We'll see in conference play.