The Commercial Appeal
Memphis can defeat Houston ... with Davis
Get well soon, Kendric Davis.
Get well soon because this Memphis basketball season likely depends on it.
Get well soon because there's a locker room full of resilient teammates waiting for you.
Get well soon because they can beat the No. 1 team in the country at Fedexforum in a couple weeks if you're back.
That's really the best way to digest what happened during the Tigers' 72-64 setback at Houston on Sunday.
The afternoon that likely catapulted the Cougars back to the top of the national polls felt like the best kind of loss this Memphis team could have suffered. The kind of loss in which everyone, certainly on the Memphis side, came away convinced of the same thing.
The Tigers (20-7, 10-4) can upset Houston (25-2, 13-1) on March 5. Provided, of course, Davis is playing.
“The best team in the country, we outplayed them in the second half,” senior Elijah Mccadden declared, and nobody who watched Sunday's game could disagree with him. “We know we can play with anybody in the country.”
They're just not good enough to beat anybody in the country without Davis. As encouraging as this setback may have been.
That will be the biggest storyline for the remainder of the season, or however much longer Davis is out with the sprained ankle he aggravated in Thursday's win against UCF.
The Tigers could afford to lose at Houston. A close loss on the road to the No. 1 team in the country without your best player will have no effect on their NCAA tournament resume. But they can't afford to lose any of their next three games (at Wichita State, Cincinnati and at SMU) and expect any sort of comfort come Selection Sunday.
So for how many of those, if any, will Davis be sidelined? Penny Hardaway didn't have an answer postgame, despite some encouraging signs.
Davis came out and did parts of his pregame shooting routine without the boot he wore on the bench once the game began. Hardaway said it was Davis's idea.
“He wanted to make them think he was playing,” Hardaway said.
You could tell early on, as Memphis wilted under Houston's aggressive half-court defense, that he wasn't.
But the Tigers, double-digit underdogs before tip-off and facing a double-digit deficit at halftime, gave themselves a chance to pull off an unlikely upset. Twice, they could have trimmed the Houston lead to a single possession in the final two minutes.
Redshirt freshman Jonathan Lawson took off after Damaria Franklin forced a turnover – a lot like how Franklin took off a few days earlier to beat UCF – but the transition layup hit nothing but backboard. On the next Memphis possession, Deandre Williams passed on an open look at a 3pointer and committed his fifth foul driving to the basket.
The outcome was effectively decided there, with Williams on the bench for good. But the immediate outlook
for this group had been altered after Memphis out-scored Houston in the second half.
The Tigers went from scoring 41 points and committing 30 turnovers in the first two halves played without Davis
– including 14 giveaways in Sunday’s first half – to scoring 43 points and committing just four turnovers after halftime without Davis.
They got another brilliant performance from Mccadden, who scored all 20 of his points in that second half. They got seniors Alex Lomax and Malcolm Dandridge back from injury.
They got clutch contributions from Williams and Franklin. They got out on the fastbreak more often to avoid Houston’s set defense.
They out-rebounded one of the best rebounding teams in the country. They were unrelenting.
“We know we just played the No. 1 team in the nation with Malcolm Dandridge being at 80 percent, (Lomax) being at 90 percent, and no Kendric Davis,” Hardaway said of his postgame message in the locker room. “We know what we can be.”
They know what they can be with and without their best player now, and they should all be convinced of the same thing.
Get well soon, Kendric.