The Commercial Appeal
Why Tigers aren’t just happy to be there anymore
The Memphis basketball team has won 14 of its last 17 games, including an AAC tournament championship.
Kendric Davis and Deandre Williams have been unstoppable, conjuring up comparisons to the likes of Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-roberts, Andre Turner and Keith Lee, or Larry Finch and Ronnie Robinson – dynamic duos already firmly entrenched in Tiger lore.
A revolving door of role players have given those two a strong pool of reserves to draw from when the time is just right. The coaching staff is pushing most of the right buttons. There's a synergy permeating throughout the program that hasn't been felt in these parts in more than a decade.
Which is why Memphis (26-8) – an 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament, getting set to face 9-seed FAU on Friday (8:20 p.m., TNT) at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio – believes it has several weeks of basketball left to play. Coach Penny Hardaway, Davis and Williams were brought out to the lobby of the Laurie-walton Family Basketball Center one by one Tuesday to field questions from a group of local media members. As a banner commemorating the Tigers' newest title was being hung on the building's façade, topics of conversation ranged from their first opponent's affinity for the 3-point shot to injured guard Keonte Kennedy's status – he will not play this weekend, by the way.
But the common thread made it clear, these Tigers are no longer just happy to be back in the Big Dance. While that may have been the pervading theme last season, when the program got back to March Madness for the first time in eight years, it's different this go around. These Tigers are hungry and as confident as ever.
“It ain't no limit,” said Williams, who averaged 26 points and 12.3 rebounds in three games at the AAC tournament last week. “The sky is the limit. We have all the pieces to do well and get back to playing great basketball. I feel like we're really getting into that. I truly believe we can get to Houston.”
The reference to Houston is a bold statement. While it is Williams' hometown, it is also the site of this year's Final Four. Memphis must first get past an FAU team that has won more games (31) than all but two teams in the country (Houston and Charleston). An FAU team that is ninth in the nation in average margin of victory (13 points). An FAU team that won the regular-season and tournament titles in Conference USA.
Hardaway is adamant the Tigers aren't overlooking the Owls. But the fifth-year coach, whose 2021-22 squad led No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga at halftime and lost by just four points, isn't willing to concede an edge to anyone.
“I feel like that we can win any game against any team in this tournament,” he said. “With the way we played Alabama (losing by three in Tuscaloosa in December), the way we played Houston, the way we played these teams in the SEC – again, not disrespecting anybody … to me, we can beat anybody on any given night.”
Why? Hardaway and Williams points toward togetherness.
“They don't really know how locked in we really (are),” said Williams. “I don't even think they know what type of run we're gonna do in the tournament, either. But, I do believe we're gonna shock the world when we get there.”
Reach sports writer Jason Munz at email@example.com or on Twitter @munzly.