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What to expect when Memphis basketball visits North Texas, plus a game prediction

Memphis’ season-defining stretch begins Thursday night. (Image Credit: Memphis Athletics)
By Roman Cleary - February 14, 2024, 4:55 pm - 1 comments

“Our non-conference is pretty much our season. And the team understands that,” Penny Hardaway said on Oct. 29.

Oh, how he couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Tigers’ non-conference stretch—as great as it was—now seems like a flash in the pan compared to what they’re tasked with for the next month. Memphis (18-6, 7-4 AAC) was once a lock for the NCAA Tournament after starting the season 15-2 with a top-10 Associated Press ranking. But a four-game losing streak—which included a Quad 3 and 4 loss respectively—to end January sent it straight to the wrong side of the bubble. Hardaway’s team now has some work to do to make the Big Dance for the third consecutive year.

If the Tigers are successful, the bulk of that labor will have been done in the their next four games. They’ll face four top-100 NET opponents, and play two projected Quad 1 games and a projected Quad 2 contest in this stretch. Memphis—currently No. 76 in the NCAA NET rankings—needs a boost for both its resume and computer numbers if it wants an at-large bid to this year’s field of 68, and cashing in on its upcoming opportunities is paramount to making those things happen.

The U of M is already 5-4 in Quads 1 and 2 with three Quad 1 victories, but home losses to South Florida and Rice severely damage its pedigree right now. And its upcoming stretch at North Texas (No. 79 in the NET), at SMU (No. 42 in the NET), v. Charlotte (No. 97 in the NET) and v. Florida Atlantic (No. 26 in the NET) may be its best shot to make up for those brutalizing defeats.

First up in this two-week gauntlet is its visit to Denton. Memphis takes on the Mean Green (13-10, 6-5 AAC) inside the UNT Coliseum Thursday night (7 p.m., ESPN+). The Tigers have played UNT 23 times dating back to 1959, owing a 17-6 record in that span. But this will be the first time the two schools meet as conference foes after North Texas joined the AAC last summer.

Here’s what to expect in Memphis’ quest for its fourth straight win.

Nae’Qwan Tomlin still hasn’t reached his full potential.

The highly-touted transfer from Kansas State finally entered Memphis’ starting lineup against Rice after being a reserve in his first nine games with the program. The Tigers are 3-1 since Tomlin joined the opening group.

The 23-year-old has played his best basketball of the year with averages of 12 points and 5.7 rebounds on 50% shooting in his last four outings. He put up 16 points, 4 rebounds, an assist, a steal and a block while shooting 35.7% from the field in Sunday’s 90-78 win over Tulane. But Hardaway is still looking for more from Tomlin during the Tigers’ season-defining stretch.

“The ceiling is in the way for Nae’Qwan because he still has so much growth to do. But where he is right now is phenomenal,” Hardaway said during his weekly radio show Monday. “I think he has three or four more levels he can go to. We just haven’t figured that out yet.”

Memphis’ rotation looks to be shortened for good.

Hardaway mentioned that “it’s time” for Memphis to start playing its best guys exclusively after last Thursday’s win over Temple. The sixth-year coach made good on that promise against Tulane.

The Tigers mainly used eight players during the contest, and each of them played at least 12 minutes. David Jones, the fifth-leading scorer in Division I, compiled 23 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in 36 minutes. Jahvon Quinerly totaled 18 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals in 35 minutes. Jaykwon Walton racked up 6 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in 30 minutes.

The U of M collected 21 assists, 14 forced turnovers, 12 offensive rebounds and 11 steals as a team while holding Tulane to 38.1% shooting. Nine players took at least three shots. Hardaway suggested this would be the formula moving forward Monday night.

“I think it’s time. We’ve tried everyone [with] so many minutes all year. And right now, with it being kind of a do-or-die [situation]…we started really locking in and focusing in on the smaller rotation,” he said. “It’s just giving the others guys a rhythm…And it’s worked for us.”

What North Texas brings to the table

It’s a year of firsts for the Mean Green, who are in their inaugural season in the AAC. They also have a first-year coach in Ross Hodge, who led UNT to a 12-6 start with a 5-1 mark in conference play. But injuries to starting guards CJ Noland (9.8 points per game) and Rubin Jones (11.7 points and 3.8 assists per game) have turned its season upside down.

The Mean Green (13-10, 6-5 AAC) are 1-4 in their last five games without Jones and 1-2 in their last three games without both Jones and Noland, whose statuses for Thursday are unknown. North Texas is now No. 74 in KenPom.

Jason Edwards is UNT’s leading scorer. The 6-foot guard is averaging 18 points per game while shooting 42.5% from the field and 35.4% from 3-point range. Edwards, who’s started just 11 of 23 games, has scored at least 31 points three times this year. He scored a season-high 37 points on 8-for-10 perimeter shooting in a 70-56 win over Tulane on Jan. 6.

Aaron Scott is North Texas’ top frontcourt player. The 6-foot-7 forward puts up 11.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game on 40.2% field goal shooting and 40.7% 3-point shooting. He also averages 1.6 blocks and 1.2 steals this season. Scott recorded a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds on 50% shooting during last Wednesday’s win over Tulsa.

Other players to watch for are 6-foot-2 guard John Buggs III (7.7 points per game and a 45.5% 3-point shooter), 6-foot-9 forward Robert Allen (6.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-5 guard Rondel Walker (3.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game).

Hodge’s team scores 67.3 points per game while shooting 43.1% from the field and 36.9% from beyond the arc. It also averages 35.7 rebounds and 10.6 assists, but it also gives the ball up 11.7 times per contest. The Mean Green are the nation’s No. 31 team in offensive rebounding percentage with 11.9 offensive boards per outing. Defensively, they rack up 12.3 forced turnovers, 6.9 steals and 3 blocks. North Texas ranks No. 117 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 36 in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.

The Prediction

Memphis earns a much-needed Quad 2 win.

North Texas is undoubtedly the Tigers’ biggest test in a while. But given the latter’s recent momentum and the former’s current injuries, it seems like Hardaway’s club is catching the Mean Green at the right time.

Expect a scrappy victory for the U of M.


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