It’s officially “win or go home” time in Memphis.
Regardless of their blowout win over Tulsa last Saturday, the University of Memphis Tigers were already locked in as the No. 5 seed in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, which tips off Thursday at FedExForum. The Tigers play No. 12 seed Tulane at 2 p.m. At stake: Not only the AAC Championship, but the team’s hopes to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Win the tournament – four games in four days – and they’re in. Short of that, it would take a strong showing in the AAC Championship game to persuade the selection committee to vote them in.
“The mental side of it is we have already played everyone (in the conference),” said Tigers Head Coach Penny Hardaway. “We know what every team is going to do. The physical side of it, you have to get your rest, you have to stay hydrated and you have to eat properly. That all goes into what happens in the game.”
If the Tigers handle Tulane in the first game, their next foe would be the University of Central Florida. A win in that game would most likely mean a semifinal with the top-seeded Houston Cougars. By defeating both UCF and Houston, the Tigers’ resumé will improve significantly.
Entering the AAC Tournament the Tigers are ranked No. 73 on kenpom.com and No. 53 in the new NCAA net rankings. Defeating two teams that are ranked high in both of these and other rankings would move the Tigers up in the statistical rankings and in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee.
Vegas oddsmakers are only giving Memphis a 4 percent chance to win the tournament – and only a 10.5 percent chance of making it to the conference finals.
But what the oddsmakers aren’t taking into account is the heart of soul of Jeremiah Martin and the impact of the fans of Memphis. If the Tigers plan to upset the conference, they’ll need more than just Martin’s heroics and the home crowd. Role players will need to step up as well. Here’s a breakdown:
Superstar Jeremiah Martin
“I don’t want my season to end.”
That’s what Martin said after a three-point win to close out the regular season against Tulsa. Martin scored over 40 points twice in February. That is a feat no other Tiger has done in their career. Martin has come a long way since only averaging only 2.7 points his freshman year.
Martin was named to the AAC All-Conference First team this year. Martin was named to the second team last season and would have made it to the first team if his season had not ended early due to an injury.
Since a meeting with Hardaway in late January, Martin has put all of the pressure of winning on his shoulders. Martin has had a “tournament or bust” mentality since the start of the season. He has never made an appearance in the NCAA tournament and really wants to make it this year.
The Tigers have the personnel to win four games
in four days. The biggest issue for Hardaway in his first season has been getting everyone to play their best in the same game. The inconsistent play of Tyler Harris, Antwann Jones and Kyvon Davenport has given Hardaway fits this season.
“They know how they can affect the game for us,” Hardaway said Tuesday. “Those three guys are all very talented in their own way, and we need them to bring that talent on every night.”
Hardaway said he needs for Harris to make shots because he becomes a weapon for the team. His shot-making allows others to have the opportunity for easier scoring opportunities. Meanwhile, despite critical remarks he recently made about Davenport, Hardaway still believes in the big man.
“Kyvon is the only person that can stop Kyvon,” Hardaway said. “When Kyvon is going, he is virtually unstoppable.”
One reason Hardaway accepted the position as head coach was to return the team to its past glory and return the fans back to watching the games in person. Attendance is up from the historic low of last season. High-powered recruits have regularly attended games.
Memphis has drawn some of its best crowds in years to watch the team play. Although this will be considered a neutral court, Tiger fans have a history of showing up when Memphis is the host city for the tournament. The Tigers are 15-2 at FedExForum this season.
“This time of the year, all that (home court advantage stuff) is thrown out of the window,” Hardaway said Tuesday. “(All the AAC teams) have gotten better since the season started.
“But yeah, there is some pressure, because even though we’re in fifth place, people are expecting us to be a favorite because of the way we play at home.”
In any case, this is certainly one of the moments Hardaway and his team envisioned a year ago when he took the reins — a chance to win the American with maybe a chance to do more.
“Once conference play started, we knew where we wanted to be at this point – and we’re there,” Hardaway said. “I don’t think we can be more ready to play than we are right now, mentally or physically.”