by Terry Davis, Special to The New Tri-State Defender

As 2019 tips off, The Memphis Tigers’ 8-5 record reflects a team that’s won games in which they were favored to win and have lost the games they weren’t. In that time, the players have had to adjust to first-year head coach Penny Hardaway and learn their roles on the team.

In the latest Kenpom.com standings, the Tigers were rated 103 out of 353 Division-I schools.  That counts for something – a team’s Kenpom ranking has been one of the best indicators of their postseason chances. One mock selection had three AAC teams making the NCAA tournament: Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston.

Last season, the Tigers opened conference play with a Kenpom ranking of 175, and ended their season with a 70-60 loss to Cincinnati. So far this season, UofM’s strong preseason schedule has boosted the Tigers’ ranking, but they will need some signature wins to make the NCAA tournament.

“We know we are a good team, but we can go to another level,” point guard and former Memphis-area high school star Tyler Harris said after the FAMU victory. “It is still early and there is a lot of time for improvement. I can’t say how good we can be, but we have a lot of potential.”

In preseason media rankings, The Tigers were projected to finish fifth in the AAC. The No. 19 Houston Cougars have led the conference so far this season with a 13-0.  Cincinnati is also receiving votes in the AP poll.

Many pundits predicted a down year for AAC basketball, but with the unexpected resurgence of Houston and the competitive games that UConn and Memphis have played so far, the AAC may send more than three teams to the tourney. Excluding Tulane (4-8), every AAC team is sporting a winning record.

Meanwhile the Tigers are still searching for that signature win, despite coming close on several occasions. A late game fizzle cost the Tigers a win over Texas Tech, and Memphis has played tough in losses to SEC powerhouses LSU and Tennessee.

If the Tigers want to achieve their tournament or bust mentality, they’ll have to be better in three areas:  rebounding, defense and game-plan execution.

Rebounding

Hardaway has constantly stressed the importance of rebounding by his wing players, given the team’s lack of size and depth among forwards and centers. Snagging rebounds reduces opponent possessions, which in turn takes pressure off the Tigers’ frontline.

The Tigers hold a 4.4 rebounding margin over opponents, good enough for 7th in the AAC, but firmly mediocre. Hardaway and his staff want the team to rebound at a better rate to control the tempo of the game. Kyvon Davenport currently leads the team in rebounding with 8.0 per game. Ranere Thornton and Alex Lomax follow with 5.4 boards and 4.4 boards per game, respectively.

“We talk about rebounding all of the time,” Hardaway said after the Tigers 96-65 blowout win over FAMU. “During the first media timeout, I noticed that there were no rebounds by anyone on our team.  That got me in a bad mood. By halftime we had seven guys with either one or zero rebounds.

“That is not who we are or what we want to be,” Hardaway continued. “It is about toughness and effort.”

Defense

The defense of the Tigers has shown flashes of greatness this season. Unfortunately, it’s also shown some major weaknesses as well.

The Tigers allows 77.23 points per game and have been their own worst enemy this season, particularly with turnovers. Memphis has averaged 16.3 turnovers a game, which puts undue pressure on the team’s undersized guards, particularly in transition defense.

The Tigers have improved in transition defense lately, but it has come at the expense of the full-court press Hardaway used earlier in the season.

Plan execution

Regardless of whether his team has won or lost, Hardaway has lamented in postgame interviews about how his team executed the game plan – or failed to, rather.

Despite repeatedly going over film with coaches, Hardaway said the players somehow abandon the plan  once the game is underway.

“Our guy’s minds are on the wrong thing,” Hardaway said after the FAMU win. “(Their minds) are not on what it takes for us to win.  You can tell when the team is not in tune.  They were not thinking about basketball in the first half.  In the second half, we got locked in on the keys of what we were trying to do.”

That second half included an intensified effort from senior guard Jeremiah Martin. After scoring just two points in the first half, Martin exploded for 20 points in the second half.

“Coach told me I need to take over the game on both ends,” Martin said. “I am just trying to do whatever it takes to win the game for us. … Coach challenged us and whoever wasn’t going to play hard (was) going to be pulled fast.”

Hardaway isn’t reluctant to yank players who don’t play hard or stick to the plan.

“The bench is a good teacher,” Hardaway said.

The Tigers will face two veteran coaches this week. On Jan. 3, the Tigers welcome Greg Marshall and his Wichita State Shockers to FedExForum for an 8:30 p.m. tipoff. And on Sunday, Jan. 6, Memphis heads to Houston to play Kelvin Sampson and the AAC-leading Cougars at 5 p.m. Both games will be televised.