Sunday morning at 11 a.m., the Memphis Tigers will travel to Houston to take on the 9th ranked Cougars in the ‘most important game’ in Penny Hardaway’s young coaching career. If the Tigers win, they will increase their chances exponentially for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know about you, but I am overjoyed and excited for the Tigers to be playing a meaningful game again in March.
If Memphis loses, there is still a chance for an NCAA berth if they win the AAC Conference Tournament, but considering the circumstances, I want them to beat the brakes off Houston Sunday. They are the gold standard in the AAC. Further motivation is that the Cougs haven’t been an honorable league partner. They found room for Our Lady of the Lake as a make-up game, refused to reschedule a canceled game with the Tigers even though they had a week off, and insisted that the contest be moved to Houston so they “would have a chance to play for a conference championship at home.”
I’m not saying they’re scared of the Tigers, but it doesn’t seem like they want to play the Blue and Gray ‘anywhere’ or ‘anytime’. If I were them, I would be apprehensive too. After watching how Penny’s squad has played during this win streak, crunching some numbers, and looking for trends, my prediction is Memphis will win on Sunday.
Before I break that down, I wanted to look back at a few other crucial contests in Tiger history and compare how our three most recent coaches fared. There will be many more meaningful games for Penny and his Tigers. I believe that he will lift the program to the heights we all desire, and this game is not a must-win for him to keep the job. Unfortunately for our last two hires, the ‘most important’ contest they coached sealed their fates as Memphis Tigers.
Josh Pastner had quite a few games that, at the time they were played, could classify as the ‘most important’ of his career. The second game he ever coached against top-ranked Kansas was a big one. That two-point loss set the bar relatively high for what his program could accomplish, but it would take four more seasons and ten more attempts before he finally beat a Top 25 team.
So, you might assume that his first win against a ranked team might qualify. There could be an argument made for the win against Oklahoma St. at a neutral site. Better cases could be presented for his second or third wins against ranked teams, a road win against hated Louisville, and the home win against those same Cardinals, who at the time was ranked number 7.
My choice for Josh’s ‘most important’ game was his last one. He spent more than a few seasons on the hot seat, but the fanbase loved Pastner. All we wanted was for him to prevail in just a few more big moments, win a few more in the NCAAs, and all would be forgiven. His final big moment was the 2015-16 AAC Conference Tournament Championship game.
Josh and the Tigers were on the cusp of being an automatic qualifier in a season they finished 19-15 and 8-10 in the conference. They beat Ohio St. and won six out of their next seven but faltered down the stretch. Inexplicably they received a first-round bye, beat third-seeded Tulsa, and then sent Tulane home. All Pastner had to do was overcome Connecticut and win one or two in the Big Dance. UConn won by 10 after building a 32-19 first-half lead. Another big moment squandered. Exit Pastner; Enter Tubby.
Tubby Smith only had a two-year tenure as head coach, so there weren’t many ‘most important’ game candidates. I could point to his second season when after finishing 5th in the AAC with a league mark of 10-8, he led the Tigers to the third round of the conference tourney. A win against Cincinnati – who earlier in the season had beaten Memphis by the worst margin of defeat (34) in the 75-game series – would have given them an outside shot at the tournament championship and the NCAAs. Smith lost to the Bearcats by 10, however, and was fired at the season’s end.
I believe the ‘most important’ game for Tubby at Memphis was in his first campaign. Although it wasn’t billed as such and at the time didn’t seem like it, a 72-57 defeat to UCF was a turning point. During the regular season, the Tigers had gone 7-3 in conference play but finished 2-6 with four losses in a row. That year ended in the first round of the AAC tournament with a historic 30-point loss to UCF. A defeat that was as unacceptable as Smith implying during the season that ‘Memphis kids just don’t grow up wanting to be Tigers’ anymore. Even though he would coach one more year, he was effectively done.
Important games defined the John Calipari era. The NIT Championship that he won was pivotal for the program. There’s also the first win in nine tries against a ranked opponent that didn’t come until year three. Who will ever forget the National Championship game? There are many choices.
In retrospect, the ‘most important’ game for Calipari was the 2005-06 C-USA Conference Tournament Championship game against UAB. Entering Cal’s sixth season, he had only made the NCAA tourney twice, going 1-2 and had been to the NIT three times. His Tiger teams earned regular-season conference titles but winning the tournament championship had eluded him.
Memphis finished the season 27-3 and 13-1 in C-USA. The one loss was against Mike Anderson and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Blazers. Anderson and the Blazers were always a problem for the Tigers. UAB entered the tournament as the second seed with a 12-2 conference record. They were scrappy, well-coached, and loathed Memphis as much as we did them.
Calipari knew the ramifications of losing another tournament championship. The Tigers responded and ended the first half with a 10-point lead. They withstood a furious second-half charge from UAB and won 57-46. Once that burden had been lifted, Cal and his team advanced to the Elite Eight. The 2005-06 team began a historic four-year run, one you may or may not find in the NCAA record books, and it was propelled by the C-USA tournament win over UAB.
Penny already has a postseason win. (I know it was an NIT win, but it’s a postseason win in the only postseason that has been played while he’s been the coach.) His Tigers have wins over two Top 25 schools, including Houston. He’s coached in the semi-finals of the AAC tournament.
But we all realize this is the ‘most important’ game to date. A win will bring validation, respect, and a much clearer path to the NCAAs. Everyone knows this, including our coach and our team. With the way Penny’s team has been playing, they believe they’re going to win. So do I, and so should you.
To begin with, their last two losses were by a combined total of three points. Since DeAndre Williams was declared eligible, Memphis has only lost three games. If Evansville and the NCAA would have done the right thing at the beginning of the season, there’s a strong possibility at least two of our six losses would be wins.
And lest anyone forget, the Tigers are 9-1 in their last 10. They’ve averaged 74.4 points per game while giving up 60.5 during that stretch. They’re beating people by an average of 15.6 points and have one of the country’s top-ranked defenses. Houston does too.
The Cougars are 8-2 over their last 10, with losses to ECU and Wichita St. In the wins (not counting Our Lady of the Lake), they average 84 points per game and give up 55.6. They’re beating people by an average of 28.3 points and have a top-ranked defense of their own. It won’t matter.
Houston makes nine 3-pointers a game at a 35-percent clip. We have the second-ranked 3pt FG percentage defense in the country, allowing teams to only hit 26.3-percent. Houston does not rebound the ball well on the defensive end; we grab almost 13 offensive rebounds per game. We have issues with turning the ball over; Houston does not force a lot of turnovers.
If we do what we’ve been doing the last 10 games, it won’t matter what Houston does or doesn’t do. Yes, that even includes turnovers. We’re winning despite some horrific assist-to-turnover ratios. During the streak, we’ve had 17, 18, 19, and 26 turnovers. In wins! It goes without saying that we obviously need to keep those numbers down but, I’m just saying.
When Memphis shoots at least 57 field goals, with a minimum of 20 3-pointers, they win. When they have 17 assists, it’s a win, even if they finish with 15 turnovers. When the Tigers score at least 72 points, it’s hard to beat them. These are the numbers to keep track of Sunday. If we hit all four of those metrics, it’s a lock.
I like our chances, and I’m not even going to bring up how soundly the Tigers defeated the two teams who handed losses to Houston. I’m also not going to lament how we’re playing a third straight senior day, or that this may be the biggest crowd we’ve played in front of this year or the fact that it should be in Memphis.
It’s fitting that Penny’s first ‘most important’ game is being played under challenging circumstances. This is how we want it. As tough as it can get, jumping over as many obstacles that are laid in front of us and breaking down every door we’re not supposed to walk through. Zach Randolph said it best, “Ain’t nothing been given easy to me, and ain’t nothing been given easy to this town.” Memphis vs. Everybody.
When we win on Sunday, it will be a turning point for the program. The conference and the country will be on notice, a clear sign that Memphis basketball is back. But If we lose, there will still be opportunities in front of us, and we will take advantage of them. Because no matter what, there will always be another ‘important game’ right around the corner.
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