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VOL. 133 | NO. 49 | Thursday, March 8, 2018

One Last Play?

Tigers to play in AAC tournament Thursday amid speculation Smith is out and Hardaway is in

By Don Wade

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American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco was talking about the league being on an upswing, having three certain NCAA Tournament teams in regular season champion Cincinnati, and Wichita State and Houston. With the conference tournament then just a few days away – it starts on Thursday, March 8, in Orlando, Florida, – Aresco noted that the league could be even better if traditionally strong programs such as Memphis, Connecticut and Temple also took steps forward.

“We need them to be one of our standard bearers,” Aresco said of the Tigers. “I can’t overstate: We’ve got great confidence Tubby Smith will get it there.”

In the days since, of course, multiple media reports have indicated that whenever the Tigers lose in the AAC Tournament – and they would have to win four games in four days to advance to the NCAA Tournament – Smith will be fired. If that’s the case, his dismissal will come after fulfilling just two seasons on a five-year contract paying him in excess of $15 million.

Memphis Tigers head coach Tubby Smith draws up a play for guard Jamal Johnson (1) and other players during a timeout in the Feb. 22 home win against Houston. (Cal Sport Media via AP Images)

All signs point to Smith being replaced by former Tiger great and one-time NBA star Penny Hardaway, who has been the focus of speculation for some time and has had grand success as a summer coach and at East High School. The media reports advanced another step when Gary Parrish of cbssports.com reported this week that Hardaway had begun reaching out to people, including former NBA/NCAA champion coach Larry Brown, about a possible position on his staff at Memphis.

Meanwhile, at 1 p.m. Central Time on Thursday, March 8, the No. 5 seed Tigers (19-12, 10-8) will begin conference tournament play against No. 12 seed South Florida. On Wednesday, March 7, Smith and players met with the media at the Laurie-Walton practice facility before boarding a plane for Orlando.

Asked if he considered the timing of the reports about his job security unfair, Smith said: “Nothing’s fair in life. Things happen to the best. Life’s not fair to anybody.”

Initially, Smith waved off a question about whether he had recently spoken with university president M. David Rudd and athletic director Tom Bowen, but then Smith said: “I haven’t probably talked to them in a while.”

If Hardaway becomes the next Tigers coach it is assumed he will be bringing some very talented local recruits with him. Hardaway would be considered to have a shot at three Top-30 players in the 2019 recruiting class: forwards James Wiseman (1) and Chandler Lawson (26) and wing player D.J. Jeffries (17). Cordova’s Tyler Harris, who is in the 2018 class and considered a Top-150 guy, also might be swayed to choose Memphis if Hardaway takes over.

Another factor in the unrest around the program: attendance at Tiger games this season declining to an almost 50-year low and the university, per their lease agreement at FedExForum, potentially losing out on as much as $800,000 from the Grizzlies.

The AAC coaches in the preseason predicted the Tigers would finish ninth. By that measure, the Tigers exceeded expectations by finishing fifth. But some fans and media have been critical of Smith’s failure to get even one commitment from a Memphis-area high school player.

Memphis guard Jeremiah Martin, who led the league in scoring but suffered a season-ending foot injury in late February, spoke to media Wednesday while standing on one leg and leaning on a scooter. Asked about the coaching news impacting the team heading into the AAC Tournament, Martin said: “It’s nothing to worry about because it’s out of our hands.”

A week ago USF, which was then 1-15 in the league, stunned the Tigers at FedExForum with a 75-51 thumping. If the Tigers get past USF Thursday, they would then play No. 4 seed Tulsa in the quarterfinals.

Junior guard Kareem Brewton says the team is taking the approach that everyone in the tournament is in the same place.

“Everybody starts over again – 0-0,” he said.

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