Ten games into a bizarre, rhythm-free basketball season, the Memphis Tigers have raised as many questions as they've answered. Here are four, with attempts at defogging the view.
Who is the Tigers' Alpha?
In Penny Hardaway's first year as head coach, Jeremiah Martin became only the fifth Tiger to score 700 points in a single season. (Hardaway himself was the second.) Last season, freshman Precious Achiuwa filled the void left by James Wiseman and earned American Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors. But this year? Who is the man
? A basketball team with four or five go-to players is a team without a go-to player.
Five players have led the Tigers in scoring in at least one game, with sophomores D.J. Jeffries and Landers Nolley each leading in three. Another sophomore, Boogie Ellis, scored 24 points in the Tigers' opening game — the team's second highest total of the season — but doesn't even start. Jeffries may be the most talented player on the roster, and Nolley has ACC credentials (from his season at Virginia Tech). But based on a tiny sample size of three games, DeAndre Williams may end up the face of this team. (The Evansville transfer missed the first seven games awaiting NCAA clearance.) An Alpha must want the ball not just in a game's closing seconds, but every minute he's on the floor. Williams appears to have a fire in his belly this program desperately needs.
What does Tiger Nation think of this team?
Related question: Would a FedExForum crowd ever boo a Hardaway-coached team? We won't find out this winter, not with the Tigers' home barn virtually empty for pandemic reasons. But looking back at the team's collapse over the final four minutes against Tulsa on December 21st, it's not hard to imagine that being an uncomfortable walk off the court for Hardaway and his players if 15,000 fans had paid for a seat to watch. It's one thing to lose two out of three games in South Dakota. Quite another to cough up a win against a team that utterly embarrassed you (by 40 points) last February.
Judging by social media, Memphis fans are getting restless. The choppy, low-scoring games, the myriad lineups Hardaway incorporates (as he must, still searching for a rotation that won't cough up games like the one against Tulsa), the feeling a Top-25 ranking is becoming a pipe dream under the watch of a man who has been vocal about top-five
aspirations. None of these worries will survive a nice, lengthy winning streak. Five games, maybe six or seven. The day will come when FedExForum is again packed on game night. If Hardaway's team is going to suffer growing pains, this may be the season for it.
Is there a must-see game remaining on the Tigers' schedule?
Circle February 14th and March 6th (or 7th) on your calendar. An upset of Houston — currently the AAC's gold standard — would be a significant notch on Hardaway's belt. The teams meet in Texas on Valentine's Day, then in Memphis for the season finale. (The date hasn't been finalized yet.)
What should expectations be for this team?
This question is related to the structure of the 2021 NCAA tournament, presuming there is one. (If you think you know the format — in the time of coronavirus — take a breath. March is a long way from now.) Will the field be expanded? Will the field be contracted for "bubble play" in a single location? Will conference tournaments be a factor?
It would seem a top-three finish in the AAC would be a reasonable bar for this team to reach. They were picked by the coaches to finish second (behind only Houston) after back-to-back fifth-place finishes in Hardaway's first two seasons on the bench. The Cougars have separated themselves, rising to fifth in the national rankings, though Tulsa also proved to be thorny for the league favorites. SMU won its first six games before falling to Houston Sunday night. Wichita State? Memphis needs to be better than two or three of these programs, and in year three of the Hardaway era, that's not a big ask. With a new year upon us, perhaps the Tigers can turn that proverbial corner and make hopes for madness in March a little less questionable.