Tigers head coach Katrina Merriweather: “I don’t think if you just say, ‘I want to be tough’ and then you are automatically tough. We drill things in a way that they develop toughness. We are only allowed to do that because they let us.” (Photo: Terry Davis)

With their opening game against Xavier about a month away, the University of Memphis women’s basketball team is busy working on what new head coach Katrina Merriweather expects to define her first group of Tigers.

“If nothing else, you are going to come and watch a tough and gritty team play,” said Merriweather, who was hired to rebuild the Memphis program after guiding Wright State coach to a 66-62 upset of Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament first round. With the win, Wright State became the first No. 13 seed to defeat a No. 4 seed since 2012.

Merriweather has been slowly introducing the basic concepts of her coaching philosophy to her new team, with her staff on course to build upon that base.

“Practice is competitive. We are excited with the energy that is being brought every day. We just have to get some chemistry. I think we will get that the more play together,” said Merriweather.

The coaching staff tasked with helping Merriweather guide the Tigers includes several members of her Wright State coaching staff and two players – Tyler Frierson, a 6’4” center, and 5’6” guard Emani Jefferson – from that team.

Emani Jefferson attempts a layup over En’Dya Buford. (Photo: Terry Davis)

The Tigers return some key players from last season’s 14-18 team. Madison Griggs, a three-point specialist, has earned weekly honors from the American Athletic Conference. She made 96 shots from beyond the arc, averaging 10.8 points per game.

Also returning are seniors Alana Davis, a defensive force who averaged 8.3 points per game, and Jamirah Shutes, who averaged 15.2 points per game.

Merriweather said the toughness she expects of this year’s team “is coming along. I think it is a mentality. It takes time for it to develop. I don’t think if you just say, ‘I want to be tough’ and then you are automatically tough. We drill things in a way that they develop toughness. We are only allowed to do that because they let us.”

It’s all part of building a positive culture.

Madison Griggs has defense on her mind. (Photo: Terry Davis)

“Our mission as a program is to create an environment where it is positive, but at the same time that is challenging,” said Merriweather.

“So we create some intentional adversity. In those moments they have got to learn to bond together. Whether we are in an arena where we can’t hear, or when the coaches are not around, they have got to be able to coach and lead when the coaches are not around.”

Merriweather wants fans to expect “for us to work hard and for everyone to be proud of the product we have put out. We are going to defend. We are going to rebound.”

In short, she’s talking “tough and gritty.”

The Tigers will tip off the regular season on Nov. 9 when they host Xavier in renovated Elma Roane Fieldhouse. On Oct. 13, they take the court at FedExForum for Memphis Madness, the preseason rollout for the men’s and women’s teams.

“I hear it is on another level here,” said Merriweather of what has been called a preseason basketball party. 

“Anything that coach Hardaway (Penny) is a part of is going to be grand and supported. We just give him a hard time, telling him you can’t spell Memphis without the PH (Penny Hardaway). 

“He has really embraced us. That is the coolest part, the women’s basketball program is going to be represented on the 13th. That has everything to do with what the department has made and coach Hardaway wanted to include us.”