A reason to believe: Why Penny Hardaway thinks Memphis basketball can win the AAC Tournament – The Commercial Appeal


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Penny Hardaway said he met with Jeremiah Martin to talk about his nerves before the AAC Tournament
Drew Hill, The Commercial Appeal

Moments after his team’s final regular season game, Penny Hardaway uttered a statement that would typify his team’s mindset as it prepares for its last chance to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.

“We have nothing to say, we just have everything the prove,” Hardaway said following his team’s win over Tulsa.

With the AAC Tournament less than a week away, there would be no more talk of being underrated or disrespected like they felt when several media outlets picked the Tigers to finish eighth in the conference during the preseason. 

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“The teams that came out and took care of business, Houston and Cincinnati, they get that respect,” Hardaway said. “UCF finished strong, so you can’t disrespect them – and so did Temple. We put ourselves in this situation. … Now we have to take care of business in the (AAC) Tournament.”

This is what Hardaway’s entire first season has built toward; Four games in four days to decide whether or not his Tigers’ NCAA Tournament dream will come true. 

Memphis knows it’s a tall task, even at home, but it’s certain there are plenty of reasons to believe it can happen. 

“There’s just something about this place,” Hardaway said. “The fans are fantastic. They give us that extra energy, and being in your own bed, having everything here and the energy of the city – it gives us an opportunity to win on any given night.”

The Jeremiah Martin factor

It also helps that the team’s hopes are invested in the conference’s leading scorer and self-proclaimed best player, of course. The Tigers will likely go as far as Jeremiah Martin takes them.

The star is averaging 29.3 points and 4.8 assists per game since the start of February.

“He’s a huge part of (why fans should believe),” Hardaway said. “We know that other teams are going to gameplan him. They know that to beat us they are going to have to stop him.”

That’s not new, however, opponents have been focusing their defense on Martin since the beginning of his historic stretch. Those gameplans just didn’t work.

“He had 43 on us and he had 41 against (USF) in a half,” Tulane coach Mike Dunleavy Sr. said Tuesday. “He’s done that multiple games since that point in time. Clearly, who he is as a player and the way he’s ended his season deems a special defensive look.”

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It’s why Hardaway met with Martin earlier this week to talk about what he can do to carry his team the rest of the way. The senior leader wanted to know if the pressure he was feeling before the most important games of his career was normal.

“I don’t know if it was a scared-to-fail type of thing,” Hardaway said. “I just told him, ‘You prepare, then when you get out on the court your instincts just take over. So don’t worry about it. It’s not like a normal game because it’s win or go home, but your natural instincts will kick in when it starts.'”

Not freshmen anymore

It’s on Martin’s teammates to take some of that pressure off this week by shouldering part of the load. 

That begins with the freshman guards Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax and Antwann Jones, providing meaningful minutes and allowing Martin to get some rest. The senior has played more than 35 minutes in every game since Feb. 2. 

“We’ve been asked to step up a lot,” Harris said. “Coach Hardaway always tells us that we aren’t freshmen anymore. It’s postseason time, so we have to act like we’re vets.”

Harris is averaging 11.1 points this season and was named to the AAC’s all-freshman team Monday. Jones and Lomax are combining to average 9.9 points per game in more facilitative roles. 

“At this point in the year they are sophomores,” Hardaway said. “… They know how they can affect the game for us and what we need gameplan-wise. It’s time for those three guys, because they are all very talented in their own way, to bring that talent every night.”

‘Some teams can get hot’

And if that happens, there’s no telling what the Tigers can accomplish. 

In fact, it’s common for teams to catch fire and make deep runs in the NCAA and conference tournaments. Since the formation of the modern AAC, a team seeded sixth or lower has made it to the semifinals of the tournament in all but one season. 

Hardaway offered last season’s Final Four Loyola-Chicago team and this year’s Missouri Valley Conference Champion Bradley as examples of what can happen when a team gets in a rhythm. 

“If you look around the nation, there’s not a lot of No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the championship of the tournaments that have already been won,” Hardaway said. “I think Bradley was a five seed, and they won theirs. So, I mean, some teams can get hot.”

After winning six of their last eight, Hardaway is hopeful that he has that team.

According to the coach, Memphis is playing the best basketball it has all season heading into the conference tournament, and the Tigers are as ready as ever to try to hang another banner in the rafters of FedExForum. 

“We’ve been in a lot of tough situations this year and faced a lot of adversity, but right now our team is closer than ever,” Harris said. “We have five seniors and we want to send those guys off on a high note. We don’t want to see those guys in the locker room crying or sad about anything. We just want to win.”

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