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Memphis basketball hoped for something different in the AAC Tournament. But it instead got more of the same.

The Tigers will now spend this offseason searching for answers they could never find in 2023-24. (Image Credit: Memphis Athletics)
By Roman Cleary - March 14, 2024, 8:51 pm - 1 comments

FORT WORTH, Texas — Thursday afternoon represented a truly depressing moment for Memphis basketball.

The Tigers’ 71-65 loss to No. 12 seed Wichita State in the second round of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) Tournament wasn’t just the low point of this season. It wasn’t just a perfect encapsulation of the 2023-24 campaign.

No, it was perhaps Penny Hardaway’s rock bottom. The sixth-year coach hoped that his team would be focused, prepared, energized and determined to win. But the now 22-10 Tigers were none of those things against the Shockers.

They were sloppy, disengaged, discombobulated and dismissive of their opponent. Just like they were on Jan. 18 against South Florida, on Jan. 21 at Tulane, on Jan. 28 at UAB, on Jan. 31 against Rice, on Feb. 15 at North Texas and on Feb. 18 at SMU. All of those underwhelming defeats hurt the Tigers immensely, but none were as devastating as what took place inside Dickies Arena.

Their NCAA Tournament hopes—if there were any left—are obviously dead. And Memphis won’t participate in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) if it’s invited, according to Hardaway. The Tigers started this season 15-2 and ranked as a high as No. 10 in the Associated Press (AP) Top 25, but went just 7-8 in their last 15 games.

“Zero [chance]. No sir. I’m not accepting any invitations,” he said postgame. “I’m not looking to play in no more NITs. I’m sorry. I’m not disrespecting the NIT. It’s been a tough season already—[my] mom being in and out of the hospital with throat cancer, dealing with a whole lot and just dealing with basketball at the same time. I know this is my job, but that’s not my first option.”

Wichita State (15-18, 5-13 AAC) was ranked No. 202 in adjusted offensive efficiency before tipoff, according to KenPom. But it still put on a show against the Tigers’ putrid defense. The Shockers shot 47% from the field for the game, and 53.6% in the first half. They also racked up 19 assists and 9 offensive rebounds while leading the contest for 27 minutes and 16 seconds.

They used a 14-5 run in seven minutes to claim a 51-38 lead with 12:42 left in the second half, and later extended that advantage to 55-41 with 10:06 on the clock.

And while Memphis responded with an 18-2 run to take a 58-57 lead with 3:30 to go, the Shockers quickly settled back in and buried the Tigers for good. Quincy Ballard slammed in an alley-oop to move Wichita back in front, and Colby Rogers drilled a deep 3-pointer over two Memphis defenders to make the score 62-58 with 2:26 to play. Paul Mills’ team stretched the margin back to seven by the time the 17-second mark came around, which essentially slammed the nail into Memphis’ coffin.

The Tigers clearly didn’t come out with enough energy, intensity or focus to advance to the AAC quarterfinals, even though their season was on the line. But Hardaway was at a loss for words when reporters asked him why.

“You’d have to talk to the players. They can probably answer. I don’t know. We were well prepared to play the game,” he said.

Spoiler alert: David Jones and Nae’Qwan Tomlin, who led Memphis with 24 and 18 points respectively, didn’t have any answers either.

But perhaps that’s the overarching theme of this season—the fact that nobody seems to have answers. Nobody knows why the team had chemistry issues. Nobody knows why the energy wasn’t always there for this club. Nobody knows why it couldn’t find the consistency it needed to save its season.

Memphis may have been filled with a bunch of graduate transfers and upperclassmen, but this group was seemingly lost in the second half of the campaign. It started by playing down to competition against the likes of Vanderbilt, Austin Peay and Tulsa. It then began its four-game skid in January by blowing a 20-point lead to USF. And just as it seemed like things were getting back on track, it lost by a combined 36 points at North Texas and at SMU. Thursday’s season-ending performance put the spoiled cherry on top.

Something has to be different in 2024-25. Things have to change. After all, Hardaway’s chances for a seventh season as the Tigers’ head coach may have been slim if it weren’t for his name and reputation in the city, because two NCAA Tournament appearances and one tournament win in six seasons isn’t good enough at a program like Memphis. Gene Bartow did more in four years. Dana Kirk did more in his first six. So did Larry Finch, John Calipari and even Josh Pastner.

Hardaway will get a chance to make things right next season, though. Jones has said multiple times that a return for him is on the table. Nick Jourdain has already announced he’ll be back for his second year with the program. And the Tigers will have another opportunity to retool their roster in the transfer portal this spring.

Memphis may have gotten more of the same in this season’s AAC Tournament, but Hardaway vowed that the program will be something different come November 2024.

“I don’t try to short-change myself because I take every loss as the head coach. But I work really hard, I really do. I’m working 20 hours a day to be really in-tune and locked in. There’s no coach that’s gonna outwork me,” he said. “It just has to be different for me next year. Obviously this hurts, because I wanted to do well for the team, the school and the city. This doesn’t sit well with me because it just wasn’t a representation of who we should be.”


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