MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Monday night, just two days after Penny Hardaway acknowledged this was the low point since his return to his alma mater, the fourth-year Memphis coach on a four-game losing streak said on his weekly radio show that he “felt like this is gonna be a beautiful week for Tiger basketball.”
There were reasons to be skeptical.
In the midst of consecutive losses to Iowa State, Georgia, Ole Miss and Murray State, Hardaway had publicly questioned his veterans in multiple ways, said his Tigers looked like an AAU team, and suggested players transferring was very much on the table. Three of the four losses came in games in which Memphis was favored by at least 10 points, making the Tigers the only team in the country to already lose three times to double-digit underdogs. In a span of three weeks, Memphis went from ranked ninth in the Associated Press Top 25 poll to unranked and littered with chemistry issues. However bad it sounds, it seemed worse. But Hardaway still insisted he had some renewed belief before this season’s biggest test — a showdown here inside FedExForum with an Alabama team that had just beaten Gonzaga and Houston.
“I feel like this is gonna be a beautiful week for Tiger basketball because of the energy I’ve seen in the building,” Hardaway said 24 hours before tip-off. “All of us are sick and tired of what’s going on. Just the energy and focus and togetherness and chemistry of what I’ve seen this week, I have confidence we’re going to play harder.”
That, they did.
They also played better. And more cohesively.
For the first time this season, Memphis looked like the preseason top-15 team it was voted and Final Four contender it was labeled during a 92-78 win over No. 6 Alabama. Put another way, fresh on the heels of a four-game losing streak, the Tigers beat by 14 points a team that had just recently beaten the nation’s preseason No. 1 team (Gonzaga) and the team picked to win the Tigers’ conference (Houston).
“For me, it was a must-win,” Hardaway said. “You don’t want to lose five games in a row; we had already lost four. We were down in the dumps, honestly, and trying to figure out a way to pull ourselves out. And to come out and play like this against a great Alabama team, who we just witnessed go across the country to beat Gonzaga [before] coming back home and playing a good Houston team in a dogfight and winning that game … there was a lot against us. But we knew we had to come out and play our best game.
“I’m proud of the guys.”
This game, just about from the jump, felt like a situation where one team (Memphis) was determined to not squander another resume-building opportunity while the other (Alabama) knew a loss on the road in a hostile environment to a preseason top-15 wouldn’t really be a big deal longterm. Sometimes, desperation wins. This was one of those times. But how it happened was just as interesting as to why it happened.
It didn’t fit the preseason script at all.
Remember, the Tigers weren’t ranked in the preseason until the program enrolled two five-star freshmen — Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren. That’s how Memphis went from a borderline top-30 team to a preseason top-15 team. But in a not completely unpredictable turn of events, the late enrollment of a couple of 17 year olds who immediately lessened the role of last season’s top two players, DeAndre Williams and Landers Nolley, created a divide within the team that, according to Hardaway, made things “miserable.”
“The main reason we have these losses is the veterans don’t want to take the young guys under their wings,” Hardaway told The Athletic’s Seth Davis after the loss at Ole Miss. “They want it to be about them.”
Plot twist, on Tuesday night, it was (mostly) about them.
The results were tremendous.
The 26-year-old Williams led the way with 20 points, six assists, three rebounds and three steals. Nolley added 13 points, six assists, four rebounds and four steals. Those two led the team in minutes played. And though Duren was impactful with 14 points and six rebounds, it was hard not to notice that Hardaway moved away from Bates for the first time this season and only played the heralded teenager five minutes in the second half. He finished 1-of-6 and is now shooting just 37.3% from the field through 10 games.
“You gotta play the guys that you know you can win with,” Hardaway explained when Dave Woloshin, the longtime radio voice of the Tigers, asked about Bates’ lack of playing time in the second half. “Emoni wasn’t having a horrible game. But those [other] guys just had an unbelievable rhythm in today’s game. … We went with the guys that we knew we needed to win the game with.”
Whether this is an actual turning point for Memphis or just one great night in a season headed nowhere remains undetermined, which is among the reasons Saturday’s showdown with No. 16 Tennessee in Nashville is now among the most interesting games of the weekend. Either way, what’s true is that after preaching the NBA over and over again for months, if not years, Hardaway, up against it, decided against Alabama to mostly use the players best equipped to help him win a college game right now regardless of whether Adam Silver will ever speak their names into a microphone someday. To be clear, if the Tigers are to reach the place so many thought was possible in the preseason, it’ll likely require Bates getting more comfortable and contributing in a meaningful way. But, at this point, it’s obvious he’s not ready.
Which is fine.
DeAndre Williams made sure of it. Landers Nolley made sure of it.
And then, after the game, everybody said all of the right things — some things about how a players-only meeting got a lot of stuff hashed out, other things about the importance of being good teammates and playing together. Again, time will tell if it’s all just words or something more. But with a five-game losing streak avoided, and the biggest victory of Penny Hardaway’s coaching career in the books, optimism has returned to a place where it didn’t really exist a few days ago. Instead of asking what happened at Memphis, folks are back to wondering what’s possible at Memphis if the tension and turmoil are both really in the past.