For Jalen Duren (center) and the Tigers, the focus now is on getting prepared for a March Madness run. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)
Terry Davis

FORT WORTH, Texas – Resolute. That pretty much describes the mindset of University of Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway as the Tigers turned the page to the basketball program’s long-awaited return to the coveted NCAA Tournament.

“It was a pretty good run over this last couple (of) months that came to an end without our first goal and that’s to get an AAC (American Athletic Conference) championship, tournament championship,” said Hardaway after the Tigers (21-10) lost to Houston (71-53) in the finals of the 2022 Air Force Reserve American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Championship here at Dickies Arena.

Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway works the sideline during the AAC tournament game. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

“But that’s over now. We have to move on to the NCAA Tournament. And we fought hard to get back there and we have to go back home, regroup and work and be ready to go out to Portland and compete.”

The Tigers – assigned a No. 9 seed in the West Regional – drew an opening round matchup with eighth-seeded Boise State in Portland on Thursday (March 17) at 12:45 p.m. A victory likely would earn a shot at the region’s No. 1 team, Gonzaga, which starts the tournament against the No. 16 seed, Georgia State.

Memphis’ return to the NCAA Tournament ends an absence that dates back to the 2013-14 season and a Round of 32 loss to Virginia’s Cavaliers

“It feels great,” said Hardaway. “It feels bittersweet because we lost the championship game but we fought so hard to get back into the NCAA. I’m not going to let that go by without celebrating that.

“And we’re still alive. Hats off to Houston for coming out and doing a phenomenal job. That game is over with. Nothing we can do about it. Got to get ready to go to Portland.”

Houston (29-5) captured the conference tournament for the second consecutive year, beating the Tigers after two earlier defeats this season. Ranked No. 18 by the Associated Press, the Cougars, who made it to the Final Four last season, earned a fifth-seed in the NCAA Tournament South Regional and will play UAB, the No. 12 seed, in Pittsburgh.

Landers Nolley II looks to pass. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Memphis trailed Houston throughout most of the conference title game. The Tigers committed 15 turnovers and the 53 points scored was the lowest game total this season. The top scorer was freshman center Jalen Duren with 14 points and 10 rebounds. DeAndre Williams had 10 points.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of the season that saw the Tigers mired down (9-8, 3-4 AAC), Hardaway said, “Man, just perseverance, really. Just from never giving up. … (W)e fought hard to get back to this position. That’s what we wanted, man. We have a chance as good as anyone to go into the tournament and make noise and I’m proud of that.”

Senior guard Tyler Harris, a Memphis product, recalled growing up watching March Madness and his decision to come back to play for the Tigers after transferring.

“I wanted to be a part of this team, make it to the NCAA Tournament,” said Harris. “We didn’t get the seed we wanted, but it’s still a great feeling that we’re going to get the opportunity to go down and play in the NCAA Tournament.”

Starting point guard Alex Lomax, another Memphis product, also talked about realizing a childhood dream of making the NCAA Tournament playing for the UofM.

“We were able to make it happen,” he said, “and to be able to make it happen this year is a pretty special feeling.”

Alex Lomax of the Tigers. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Veterans Lomax and Harris heaped praise on Duren, the conference Freshman of the Year.

“Jalen is a guy (who) came in with the right mentality. He wanted to win,” said Harris. “I learned a lot about him this year.

“He wants to do anything it takes the win. Even if he’s having a great game and somebody else is playing good, he’ll let them rock out. Off the court, we’re very cool. And he’s a great ball player. I mean, you can’t really want to take the shine from him. You want him to get all the shine because he’s bigg.”

Jalen Duren is flanked by Josh Minott (left) and Landers Nolley II. (Photo: Terry Davis/The New Tri-State Defender)

Duren’s pro stock is high, which brings with it the possibility of a one-and-done leap to the NBA. On Sunday, he reveled in the Tigers’ successful run into the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s amazing, it’s an exciting feeling….,” he said. “It’s bittersweet kind of coming after a loss but it’s going to be fun to go out there in the tournament. Coach’s first time in the tournament since he’s been here. I feel like they’re going to get us ready to make a huge run.”

Duren, a Delaware native who played high school basketball in Philadelphia and in Florida, said the work ethic he brought with him fit into “the type of culture Memphis already had … that’s why I feel like I fit into this program perfectly because of the type of mentality I bring.

“Coach Hardaway brings a non-losing mentality. He always wants to win. A-Lo (Alex Lomax), Tyler (Harris), we all just want to win and do anything to win. I feel like (that) being my mindset coming in, it was just a perfect fit.”