When James Wiseman, the number one recruit in the nation, was declared eligible by the NCAA on November 8, 2019, he continued to play. However, after dropping his lawsuit against the NCAA 5 days later, he left the University of Memphis and stated that he would prepare for the 2020 NBA Draft. With Wiseman presumed by many to be selected within the top-four picks, it would be safe to say that the Tigers would go through a slump.
“Of course, losing a talent like James causes us to switch around our rotations,” head coach Penny Hardaway stated after defeating Little Rock on November 20.
Wiseman’s suspension after three games dealt a blow to the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. The 7-foot self-described “Unicorn” averaged nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, including 28 points and 11 rebounds in the season opener.
Along with Precious Achiuwa, now averaging 15 points and 10 boards for the Tigers, the duo was imagined to be a lethal big man combo that would force opposing teams to choose between interior domination or leaving Tiger wing players wide open for threes.
But on Dec. 27, while serving his NCAA imposed suspension, Wiseman withdrew from the university to prepare for the draft.
What was supposed to be a temporary 12-game adjustment suddenly became the permanent new normal. The effects did not strike the young Tigers right away.
Memphis was eight games into a 10-game win streak when Wiseman left the team for good, beating New Orleans and Tulane to end 2019. Fans began to believe that perhaps Memphis could thrive without the services of their best player for a long period of time.
Achiuwa took the leadership role in Wiseman’s absence, sophomore guard Tyler Harris shot the ball well from deep, and freshmen Boogie Ellis and Lester Quinones provided big shots during their streak.
During that span, Memphis forced 10 steals a game and clamped down on defense. However, over the last six games, the Tigers have forced only eight steals per contest.
However, the Tigers have fallen off from their previous pace. The Tigers had gone 2-4 in their past six games, not including Wednesday’s 59-57 win over UCF.
During this stretch, the Tigers have defeated the likes of the University of South Florida and Cincinnati, yet fell to Georgia, Wichita State, Tulsa and SMU.
“A lot of these guys have been put in situations to where they have to create shots for themselves,” Hardaway said after the loss to Georgia on January 4th that snapped the win streak. However, the Georgia game was the “easiest” loss to bear.
Two of those losses in particular stand out in the eyes of many fans.
First, the Tulsa fiasco. Memphis was completely run off the court, going into the half down 17-40 before losing 80-40. Tulsa used a zone defense to disrupt the Tigers, who shot just 16-56 from the field (29 percent).
Rebounding and turnovers, which have plagued the Tigers all season, did not go in favor of them either. Memphis turned the ball over 20 times against Tulsa while also being out-rebounded 37-35 on the glass as well.
But the Tulsa game revealed the Tigers struggles against a zone – one other teams will certainly try to exploit.
Fast-forward to the SMU meltdown.
Up by 12 points in the final seven minutes of last Saturday’s contest, the Tigers went the rest of the game scoring only one field goal: a dunk by D.J. Jeffries.
Despite the Tigers shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and 45 percent from the three point-line, they were not able to get stops or baskets late in the game when it counted. Tigers lose, 74-70.
Boogie Ellis has struggled in January. Before his 14 point night against SMU, Ellis scored just three points over four games, including two games he attempted zero three-pointers. His slump has elevated the savvy but undersized Alex Lomax into the starting lineup.
Ellis must find his confidence and his shot again. Achiuwa’s reliable 20-10 production has carried the team, but one must wonder if nearly 30 minutes of physical play is taking a toll.
This isn’t the team any Tiger fan expected this season – Wiseman’s departure made sure of that.
But this is the team Hardaway has, and they must get back on track in conference play – or else the promise coming into the season will be lost for good.