The underpinning for winning and losing basketball programs is the “culture,” with head coaches responsible for building or maintaining it. The new ones pronounce their winning-culture intentions from day one and then embark on the journey of ascension.
Four years after taking the helm at his alma mater, University of Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway guided the Tigers back to the NCAA tournament, winning the first-round game against Boise State and pushing top-ranked Gonzaga to the brink of an upset.
The loss – painful as it was for players, coaches and fans – was an experience that Hardaway views as an important building block in the Tigers’ ongoing reconstruction of a culture that yields perennial tournament appearances and the tantalizing possibilities of making a deep run and going all the way.
Noting the pride he has in this season’s Tigers, Hardaway said he told his players just that moments after the defeat.
“We saw a really good team, we saw the best, they’re labeled that,” said Hardaway. “They showed why they were the best … that’s the bar, that’s the culture that we have to get to. (Gonzaga) Coach Mark Few has done an unbelievable job to get his program to where it is now and that’s what we’re pushing towards now.
“Our guys got a clinic on what it looks like to be professional, play hard, do things on both ends of the floor and whatever it takes to win.”
Having won the NIT championship last season and now having come within a whisker of the NCAA Sweet 16, Hardaway was asked about the value of the progression.
“It’s very important but I’m fully aware of when the season starts that you have to take care of business early to get your respect late,” he said. “They’ve been consistent and we weren’t. So, you have to go into June and July with the mindset of this is what’s going to get us to where we need to be when it comes to March.
“We’re really not a 9 seed but we put ourselves in a really bad predicament early and we fought our way up to get to a 9 seed. But what it tells me is we have work to do. But we understand now and the players understand now how important it is to come into the season being focused and have a culture, a family for the whole time on and off the court.”
Memphis guard Tyler Harris said although the Tigers struggled for a significant part of the season, he and his teammates went into the game with the mentality that they were the No. 1 seed.
“When the horn blows at the end we were heartbroken because we wanted to get the win, but looking back at the season we fought back through all the adversity we had, losing, all the media talking bad on our team,” said Harris.
“We came together and stayed a family and we ended up making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. So, when I look back on this season, I can be proud. But for sure, when the buzzer (rang) I was heartbroken.”
Acknowledging that Gonzaga’s star forward proved unstoppable and “showed who he was,” Memphis forward DeAndre Williams, said, “We knew we could go out there and play with those guys. …
“They (were) very resilient. They played together, they (were) poised, and like Coach (Hardaway) said they showed us the bar. That’s what we gotta do when we look forward to playing big teams like that.
“We’ve just got to be ready to play.”