Memphis Tigers looks to stay at the top of the American with a trip to Temple

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The Memphis Tigers (12-6, 4-1) are in a critical part of their schedule. What happens over the next few games will help determine if the NCAA tournament is still a realistic goal this season.

The Tigers play Temple in Philadelphia tonight (Jan. 24), followed by a match against UCF at FedExForum on Sunday. Also on the horizon: Road trips to Tulsa (Jan. 30) and South Florida (Feb. 2). But Tigers coach Penny Hardaway isn’t getting ahead of himself.

“I am only focused on Temple,” Hardaway said of the upcoming games. “We will begin to prepare for UCF after we return from the Temple game.”

Here are three keys to look for as conference play heats up:

Rebounding

One of the team’s most glaring weaknesses has been rebounding, especially on the offensive glass, where they’ve allowed second chance points. Memphis grabs 37.2 rebounds per game, but they allow opponents to get 35.5 boards.

During his Orlando Magic career, Hardaway played with Bo Outlaw, an undrafted power forward who made a 14-year NBA career out of rebounding and doing the “dirty work” other players didn’t want to. So when asked if he used clips of his former teammate to motivate the Tigers to rebound better, Hardaway doubted it would work.

“I don’t think I can show that, because Bo Outlaw was a ball of energy and he understood how to rebound the basketball,” he said.

“If you don’t have the heart and drive of a Dennis Rodman, showing them film will not do anything,” he continued. “Players today don’t respect a Bo Outlaw or Dennis Rodman, they respect (star scorers like) Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and James Harden. They respect those guys. They don’t respect the guys that are going to do the dirty work.

“I respect those guys as well, but you have to do the dirty work,” Hardaway concluded. “And that’s rebounding.”

Hustle Board

Hardaway has his own “hustle board,” tracking deflections, turnovers, assists, blow-bys and other less traditional stats. The hustle board is refreshed daily, but it is not cumulative. And whether at the team’s practice facility or at FedExForum, players are checking their standings.

The guards are always near the bottom of the board because of turnovers. Kareem Brewton Jr. tries to stay in the positive number, but Tyler Harris blow-bys contribute to his negative numbers. Meanwhile Kyvon Davenport consistently ranks near the top of the hustle board.

Hardaway uses the board to show his team the less glamorous plays that lead to wins. Will it translate into tougher conference play?

Earning everything

Reportedly, some competing recruiters have implied that Hardaway shows a preference for Memphis kids, given the large roles of freshmen guards Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris. But Hardaway insists he’s only rewarding hard work – and his players recognize that.

“You can’t be mad at a teammate who’s outworking you,” he said. “You have to man up and you have to get your work done. You have to be happy for your teammate and you have to check yourself to start doing what you have to do.”

Brewton was a starter under former Coach Tubby Smith, but came off the bench to start this season under Hardaway. As he’s improved his shooting, his playing time has increased. “I shoot with way more rhythm than I used to,” he said. “I shoot smoother.” And as for playing time …

“It is at point where whoever is playing better is who will play,” Brewton said. “That is why everyone brings 100 percent at practice. On his improved shooting percentage Brewton said, “Confidence!! I shoot with way more rhythm than I used to. I shoot smoother.”