“What are we really playing for?”
That is the question – rhetorical as it may be – Coach Penny Hardaway has been asking his suddenly yo-yoing Memphis basketball team of late. The Tigers (13-5, 3-2 AAC), after a strong non-conference showing, have been up-and-down the past three weeks – sometimes even within the same game. Alternating wins and losses since Dec. 29, looking unbeatable at times and unbearable to watch at others.
So, Hardaway has taken to doling out some not-so-subtle reminders to a roster of players who, mostly, have never been part of an NCAA Tournament. Senior guard Keonte Kennedy, the team’s fourth-leading scorer who previously played at Xavier and UTEP, is one of those Tigers who hasn’t yet gotten a taste of March Madness.
“I mean, that’s why we came here,” said Kennedy. “We came here to win and to hang a banner. To play in the national championship game and to win the national championship game. And we haven’t always played like that.”
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Memphis is 3-2 in its last five games and has faced second-half deficits in each one. The rebounding margin for the Tigers during that stretch is minus-27, which has contributed to their opponents averaging 14.4 second-chance points per game.
More than the tangible deficiencies, though, Hardaway is convinced the road started to get rockier following the team’s eight-day Christmas break. They said the Tigers lost focus and the Chemistry was waned. As a result, so too have Memphis’ NCAA Tournament prospects. It slipped from a NET ranking in the mid-30s to as far back as the low 50s.
The Tigers are currently 46th. Most projections viewed them as no worse than an 8 seed. Now, Memphis is teetering on the bubble.
The circumstances are similar to a year ago, needing a strong finish to reach the NCAA Tournament. But Hardaway said there’s a significant difference as his team tries to move forward Thursday (6 pm, ESPNU) against Wichita State (9-8, 2-3) at FedExForum.
“Well, you know, a lot of the Younger guys that have been in the program, because we’ve always had one of the youngest teams, they’re more focused on being one-and-done,” he said. “They thought making it to the NCAA (Tournament) was gonna be a given. Nothing is ever given on this level.
“I think the older guys understand the magnitude of what’s going on and they’re gonna relish in the moment, not just take it for granted. They know every game we lose, it takes that situation away from us, making it to the NCAA Tournament. So, we have to win. They’re much more aware than the Younger guys were.”
Reach sports writer Jason Munz at [email protected] or on Twitter @munzly.