As soon as the Tigers started celebrating their NIT Championship game victory over Mississippi State, Memphis began thinking about next year. Penny’s team played as well as anyone in the last 18 games of the season, and the nucleus was all expected back. The final contest of a long and strange campaign didn’t seem like an ending but, instead, felt like an auspicious beginning.
Eager fans began to draw parallels with the Tiger team coached by John Calipari, who won the NIT Tournament in 2001-02. That win could easily be considered as the keystone for Cal’s program. A program that, for a brief, infraction-free moment, had the record for the most wins over a four-year period in NCAA history.
There is some symmetry between the two squads. Defense was and is a priority. NIT titles were won in the second year of eligible postseasons for Penny and Cal. Each dismantled an SEC team to claim the championship. Both teams lost to Houston in the conference tournament. And the pair of coaches were heavily scrutinized during the regular season for failing to live up to expectations.
But do we want history to repeat itself? If the current Tiger team is on the same trajectory, they won’t win a second-round NCAA game for another three seasons. After winning the NIT, Cal’s team responded with a first-round NCAA loss, a second-round NCAA loss, and another NIT trip, where they lost in the semi-finals.
While taking a closer look to determine why Cal’s NIT title wasn’t the launching pad for the success we all remember, something became apparent. Calipari’s ascension only truly began with an exodus of competition that made his path easier to traverse. But a more accessible way doesn’t always equate to a fulfilling and rewarding journey.
In his first five seasons in C-USA, Calipari was a combined 3-10 against rivals Louisville and Cincinnati. Three of those ten losses were handed to the Tigers in the conference tournament. When the Cardinals and Bearcats left for the Big East (St. Louis, Southern Mississippi, and Charlotte, who also frustrated Tiger fans, left for greener pastures as well), Cal began a historic run, only losing one conference game over the next four years.
Including non-conference games, the average margin of victory during that span was 16 points. Without facing quality, talented competition night-in and night-out, the Tigers had little opportunity to face true adversity in must-win situations. During these four years, Memphis was 8-7 vs. Top 25 teams in the regular season, with only three opportunities after Dec. 31, in which they went 1-2.
It goes without typing that those Tiger teams were very formidable and worthy of their national rankings. They beat quality opponents in non-conference and in the NCAAs. And while C-USA wasn’t great, it was populated by teams who despised us and gave their best effort to beat us. But the talent disparity was too much for them to overcome.
During those magical four years, Memphis would show up and have teams beaten mentally before pre-game warmups were over. They were an imposing bunch. But when they faced teams with comparable talent who had run a tumultuous conference gauntlet, they often struggled.
In ’06, after winning the first three rounds by an average of 16 points, they lost to UCLA by five points, only scoring 45. The following year they cruised to the Elite 8, winning by double-digit margins until losing to a battle-hardened Ohio St. team 92-76. I don’t have to rehash how they lost a lead and fell apart in the final moments and overtime to Kansas in the title game; none of us wants to relive that. They then finished the run by letting Missouri hang 102 points on them in the Sweet 16.
I wouldn’t trade that four years of dominance. It was fun living through it, and for a few fleeting moments, we all knew what it felt like to be a National Champion. But I can’t help but wonder how much more incredible it could have been if the Tigers had been forced to overcome the bully on their block, learning how to win in the cauldron of fierce competition game-in and game-out.
Penny and this Memphis team will have to do just that to achieve the greatness that is expected. Hardaway is 2-9 against Tulsa and Houston in his first three seasons, with two losses to the Cougars in the conference tournament. And those two teams will continue to be a thorn in our side, as there aren’t any conference expansions on the near horizon. There’s also Wichita St., Cincinnati, and SMU to deal with.
That fact alone would be a strong indicator that Penny’s program will be built on a stronger foundation, but there are others. Defense is and was a primary building block for both NIT champs, and Hardaway’s scheme has produced better numbers in fewer games. In his second season, his team forced opponents to shoot a lower percentage (36%) than Cal’s best defensive unit (37%), which was his final one in Memphis.
And despite the recent additions to the transfer portal, the core group of players returning – as of this writing – is a strong one. Lester Quinones, Alex Lomax, Malcolm Dandridge, Moussa Cisse, DeAndre Williams, and Jayden Hardaway finally understand what Penny wants from them and have helped build a culture that can sustain winning.
After Cal’s NIT title, he had roster turnover as well. Kelly Wise graduated, Dajuan Wagner declared for the NBA, and Memphis native Scooter McFagdon transferred to Tennessee. He reloaded with a mix of Memphis kids and national recruits. After the NIT run, his first two teams relied on players from the city until he changed his recruiting strategy and focused on high-level prospects from all over the country.
With the type of program that Penny appears to be building, he may also have to adopt that method. I would love for the roster to be comprised primarily of Memphians, but those days may be over. The spotlight is hot and bright for players from the city, and some may not be equipped to deal with the scrutiny.
When Larry, EP, and Penny were Tigers, there weren’t any social media outlets they could hop on and be told that they were garbage. DJ Jeffries even admitted earlier this year that too many people were in his ear, and he had to tune them out so he could focus. It’s going to take a special type of kid from Memphis to overcome that type of baggage from now on. A kid like Alex Lomax, for instance.
As far as the other transfers, if players are only concerned with getting minutes and shots, Memphis might not be the place for them. Hardaway is upfront with his recruits, telling them that they will have to earn playing time because nothing is given. And with there seemingly being no end to big-time recruits wanting to be Tigers, that will remain true.
That type of competition in practice only serves to make the team stronger and more resilient. If these players want to be in the Association one day, they will need to get familiar with someone working to take their spot each practice, game, and season. If they can’t handle the realization that it takes hard work and performing on a high level every minute of every session, maybe Memphis isn’t the place for them.
I’m not going to begrudge any young man for making a decision in his own best interest. I was young once and made questionable choices, but they were mine. I wish them the best and thank them for wearing the blue and gray, but Memphis will be just fine with whoever wants to suit up for Penny and the city.
Because now, most of us believe that the Tigers are back. Last week Penny was on national TV, declaring Memphis is “very close to being a…powerhouse again” and that we are “well-positioned for a deep run in the NCAA” next year. With the way this season ended, who could argue?
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