How the Memphis Tigers navigated uncertainty and got back to the NCAA Tournament
Ahead of their first round matchup with FAU Friday night, it's important to look back at how they got back to the Big Dance.
Questions after the Answer
NCAA slams Memphis, Penny Hardaway with allegations of misconduct days after their tournament run
Turning the Corner
Tigers land their star in Kendric Davis, see old stars return
Time to get to Work
Memphis lays out one of their most ambitious non-conference schedules in years as penalties from the NCAA come in
Announcing their Presence
Tigers start the season strong in non-conference play
Early Conference Struggles
Faltering to familiar foes is never easy to manage, but the Tigers nearly see their Tournament bid squandered
Conquering the Conference - and the Cougars
Memphis secured their Tournament hopes with a strong finish - but had other goals in sight
After ending an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2022, the Memphis Tigers achieved another first in a decade: winning a conference championship.
The Tigers' American Athletic Conference title - achieved after a win over the No. 1 team in the nation in Houston - earned them an automatic spot in the Big Dance, making the tournament in back-to-back years for the first time since their recent drought began in 2014.
While Tigers fans are as confident as ever in the team's chances to go far in the tournament, reaching this point was anything but a sure bet. Between several key players transferring out, and the program facing serious penalties for NCAA violations, the Tigers entered the 2022 offseason with a cloud over them.
Before No. 8 Memphis tips off against No. 9 FAU Friday at 8:20 p.m. in Columbus, Ohio, it's worth taking a look at how they weathered their storms and made their way back to the NCAA Tournament.
Questions after the Answer: NCAA slams Memphis, Penny Hardaway with allegations of misconduct days after their tournament run
After many highs, Memphis Tigers basketball hit another low after news broke in March, 2022, detailing the team's NCAA violations shortly after their 2022 NCAA Tournament exit.
The Tigers committed four Level I and two Level II NCAA violations, the NCAA said, that were discovered during an 18-month investigation into the basketball program.
The case stems from Penny Hardaway’s $11,500 payment to Wiseman’s mother to help the family move to Memphis from Nashville to play for East High School.
The panel found that benefits Hardaway provided to three prospective student-athletes were not recruiting inducements, but part of his long-standing philanthropy in the Memphis community since his days in the NBA.
Key contributors depart after allegations go public
Several key members of the Tigers' 2022 Tournament run decided to leave the team after the announcement of allegations against the program, either via the NBA draft or the college transfer portal.
Star forward Jalen Duren declared for the draft, ultimately being selected in the first round by the Detroit Pistons.
Landers Nolley II, who averaged 9.8 points per game and more than 26 minutes played per game, entered the transfer portal as a grad transfer, just a day after Lester Quinones, who averaged more than 27 minutes per game and was a huge presence in the NCAA Tournament, decided to take his chances with the 2022 NBA Draft, declaring while also retaining his college eligibility.
Nolley went on to have a star season at Cincinnati, while Quinones was selected by the Golden State Warriors.
Earl Timberlake, portal, and Josh Minott, draft, both played many minutes for head coach Penny Hardaway throughout the 2021-’22 season.
Tyler Harris later left via the transfer portal, and went on to have a big season with USF.
Both Nolley and Harris transferring to conference rivals were a poor indicator at the time of the state of Penny Hardaway's program.
Turning the Corner: Tigers land their star in Kendric Davis, see old stars return
SMU's standout point guard Kendric Davis became the prize of the transfer portal when he announced his entrance in April, and Penny Hardaway went to work to make him a Tiger.
The Tigers announced Davis would come to the team on April 22.
The SMU transfer chose Penny Hardaway and the Tigers over an extensive list of some of the top programs in college basketball.
Kansas, Texas Tech, TCU, and Houston were the other teams in his final five.
The 6-foot, 180-pound guard averaged 19.4 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 32 games for the Mustangs in 2021-2022. His addition indicated a new direction for Hardaway, who had been criticized for not recruiting high-end point guards.
Tigers fans know by now how great of a leader and performer Davis would become.
DeAndre Williams returns after testing the draft waters
The University of Memphis had just turned out one of the most successful men's basketball seasons in recent memory. They erased the program's eight-year tournament drought, won 22 games and almost upset top-seeded Gonzaga in the Round of 32 in one of the most thrilling games of this past March Madness.
As the Tigers walked off the court in Portland, DeAndre Williams wondered: Was this how his college career came to a close?
"I took it all in," he said. "I had a lot of emotions. I kind of slowed down and tried to clear my mind."
While there was much to celebrate from the 2021-22 season, they didn't achieve everything they set out to accomplish. That unfinished business was a major factor in Williams choosing to return for another season, he explained, speaking exclusively to ABC24.
"I feel really at home at Memphis," he said. "That played a huge part in me coming back. The love I got from the fan, coaches and teammates. I always felt like I can flourish here regardless of any circumstance."
Williams, 25, declared for the NBA Draft in April while maintaining his college eligibility. He tested the waters and weighed his options with his family. Finally, Williams met with Penny Hardaway, before announcing his decision to return on June 1.
Williams, paired with Kendric Davis, became even more of a star; upping his points per game average from 11.1 in 2021-2022 to 17.8 in 2022-2023, and his rebounds per game from 5.8 to eight.
Time to get to Work: Memphis lays out one of their most ambitious non-conference schedules in years as penalties from the NCAA come in
In late July, the Tigers announced they would play five SEC opponents in their 2022-2023 non-conference schedule.
The Tigers opened their season at Vanderbilt on Nov. 7. Memphis would also be on the road for their matchup with Alabama (Dec. 13), and play Auburn in Atlanta (Dec. 10). The Tigers would host Ole Miss (Dec. 3) and Texas A&M (Dec. 17).
The Tigers played at least seven opponents that finished in the Top 66 of 2021-2022's NET rankings.
"Our non-conference schedule was designed to challenge our team, as well as give Tiger Nation some exciting home games and the chance to travel regionally to Nashville, St. Louis, Tuscaloosa and Atlanta," Hardaway said at the time. "We continue to work each and every day this offseason to build on last season's successes."
Independent Resolution Panel fines Memphis for NCAA violations, but doesn't suspend Penny Hardaway or induce a postseason ban
On September 27, the Independent Resolution Panel (IARP) announced the UofM will not face a postseason ban and Coach Penny Hardaway will not be suspended.
The IARP said the UofM failed to monitor an “athletics booster, provided impermissible extra benefits, and conducted impermissible recruiting activities with prospective student athletes.” The panel also said the university failed to cooperate with the investigation by delaying requested documents.
The IARP gave the Tigers a $5,000 fine, three years probation, and a vacation of two wins while James Wiseman played for the team.
Announcing their Presence: Tigers start the season strong in non-conference play
DeAndre Williams scored 17 points, and the Memphis Tigers never trailed in routing the Vanderbilt Commodores 76-67 in the season opener for both teams on November 7.
They would go on to drop their next game, a true road contest at Saint Louis, but came back to beat VCU, a team which ended up making the NCAA Tournament, 62-47.
A loss against Seton Hall at the ESPN Events would be the last loss the team would suffer for nearly a month, as the team rattled off six straight wins against strong competition; including a home win against regional rival Ole Miss and an emphatic 82-73 victory against then-No. 11 Auburn.
Kendric Davis scored a season-high 27 points, DeAndre Williams added 16 points and 11 rebounds and Memphis ended 11th-ranked Auburn's season-opening eight-game win streak 82-73 Saturday night.
Davis’ jumper beat the shot clock buzzer to make it 60-50 with 11:18 remaining, and Memphis was never threatened again. The closest Auburn got was an eight-point deficit on K.D. Johnson’s free throws with 3:04 left in the game.
Their next game, their toughest yet and arguably of the season, against NCAA Tournament overall No. 1 seed Alabama, saw their streak come to an end, but they gave a fight to the Crimson Tide, falling 91-88.
Led by Kendric Davis' 30 points, the Tigers stayed alive most of the way for a second upset of a Top 10 Alabama team in as many years and closed the gap in the final seconds.
Alabama had just climbed into the Top 5 after becoming the first team to beat two No. 1 teams — North Carolina and Houston — before January since Duke in the 1965-66 season.
Despite the loss, a team which wasn't included in the preseason conversation for the NCAA Tournament was now being taken seriously.
The Tigers would close out non-conference play with another win over an eventual Tournament team - Texas A&M - and a victory against Alabama State.
Early Conference Struggles: Faltering to familiar foes is never easy to manage, but the Tigers nearly see their Tournament bid squandered
Entering American Athletic Conference play, it seemed the only real obstacle standing in the Tigers' way to an NCAA Tournament bid, was themselves.
The AAC was experiencing a down year, with only Memphis and defending conference championship Houston projected to enter the Tournament.
This meant the Tigers had a relatively easy path in conference play, but as they soon would find out, it was anything but easy.
The start to American Athletic Conference play against the USF Bulls looked like it was going to be a major disappointment for Penny Hardaway's squad halfway through the second half as USF - led by former Tiger Tyler Harris - commanded a 10-point lead thanks to Harris's resurgent second half and solid shooting from three-point range.
Kendric Davis and the Tigers decided that was enough. After surrendering their own nine-point lead in the first half, the Tigers surged back against the Bulls, sealing the comeback with three straight steals from Davis, who finished the game with five overall to complement 24 points and nine assists.
Any momentum garnered by the comeback was immediately lost in their next game, a road contest against Tulane in which Memphis was the favorite. their 96 points allowed was a season high.
After a win against perennial conference basement-dwellers East Carolina, the Tigers then went to the road against UCF, dropping a heartbreaking game in double overtime, 107-104.
Their hopes of making the Tournament were now slim - ESPN had them projected as one first four teams out of the Big Dance.
The Tigers did rattle off five straight wins after a thrilling buzzer-beater win against Temple, but a home overtime loss to Tulane, one in which Tigers legend Lorenzen Wright's jersey was retired, gave them little hope of getting into the Tournament.
What came next, was what could only be described as them playing with their backs against the wall.
The Tigers turn their season around
Memphis came into their January 15 matchup against Temple with one simple ultimatum: if they lost any more games except to Houston, they were likely out of the Tournament.
As it ended up, that's exactly what happened.
A strong defensive effort led the Memphis Tigers over USF for the second time in the season, 99-81.
The Tigers forced 17 USF turnovers, including nine steals. Memphis took advantage of the Bulls' miscues scoring 30 points off the turnovers.
A second win against Temple set the stage for a rematch against UCF.
In another hard-fought battle with the Knights, the Tigers saw themselves - and their season - on the ropes, down 63-62 in the final seconds, UCF with the ball.
Four turnovers later, the Tigers prepared to foul, before Franklin swatted the ball loose with 10 seconds remaining. A diving Johnathan Lawson set the ball back to Franklin who got the contested lay-in to fall, sealing the Tigers 20th victory of the season.
As Damaria Franklin stole the ball and his game-winning layup dropped, Kendric Davis watched from the bench in a walking boot.
The Tigers leading scorer, Davis, went down with 4:25 remaining in the first half after turning his right ankle while going up for a basket. Davis screamed in pain before being helped off the court. He was ruled out for the remainder of the game and returned to the bench with crutches and a walking boot.
While Davis appeared to be out for the foreseeable future, the Tigers still found themselves very much alive.
Conquering the Conference - and the Cougars: Memphis secured their Tournament hopes with a strong finish - but had other goals in sight
No. 2 Houston loomed next on the schedule for the Tigers.
Houston, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, is a college basketball juggernaut. Two years removed from a Final Four appearance, the Cougars were also back-to-back conference champions.
The Tigers, without their leading scorer in Kendric Davis, put up a valiant fight, however, falling 72-64 on the road. The loss was so impressive in the eyes of Bracketologists, it actually improved Memphis' standing in the Tournament projections.
Three straight wins against Wichita State, Cincinnati, and SMU, respectively, set up a monumental final regular season home game against Houston - now the nation's No. 1 team.
A sold-out FedExForum is what awaited the Cougars, as they entered the same arena they lost in the previous year against the Tigers.
The only other time Memphis ever hosted a No. 1 team was Arkansas at The Pyramid back in 1993.
"You get the chance to have the No. 1 team come into your building on senior day, the last game of the year in a packed house—and it will be packed," Penny Hardaway said. "You can't ask for much more."
The Cougars started the game red-hot, out-performing the Tigers in nearly every facet of the game - except free throws - and commanded a 41-32 advantage at the half.
A furious comeback by the Tigers to start the half saw them take a 48-47 lead, and the two battled from there on out.
Houston took the lead with seconds left, before a Kendric Davis driving layup tied the game at 65 with nine seconds left. Davis ended the game with 26 points.
That's when the Cougars - from the full court line - drove down the court, giving the ball to standout Jamal Shead at the buzzer.
The ball seemed to hang in the air as the collective breaths of more than 18,000 fans at FedExForum were held.
Basket. Buzzer. Heartbreak. Houston celebrated a 67-65 win in front of the dejected Memphis home faithful.
Turning heartbreak into triumph at the AAC Tournament
Despite the two losses to Houston, Memphis still entered the American Athletic Conference Tournament as the conference's No. 2 seed. They drew No. 7 UCF - a persistent foe - in their first round game in Fort Worth.
In a game which almost saw UCF claw all the way back from a massive halftime deficit, DeAndre Williams and Kendric Davis combined for 68 points as Memphis survived and advanced, 81-76.
Williams added 13 rebounds for the Tigers Kendric Davis added 33 points while shooting 10 for 16 (5 for 7 from 3-point range) and 8 of 9 from the free throw line, and he also had seven assists and three blocks. Chandler Lawson finished 1 of 4 from the field to finish with four points, while adding six rebounds.
Two Tigers scoring at least 30 points in the same game had not happened since at least 2004, the university told the Associated Press.
The Tigers then set their sights on Tulane, the only team outside of Houston who had beaten Memphis twice in the season.
Memphis overwhelmed Tulane 94-54, with DeAndre Williams scoring 27 points and 11 rebounds.
It set up a second-straight AAC Championship Game matchup with none other than the Houston Cougars.
This time, it was Memphis off to a torrid start, taking control of the game with a 16-2 run in the first half.
Davis had all but two of those points and made two 3-pointers only 9 seconds apart.
That big spurt started on a fast-break layup by Davis with just under eight minutes left. Davis made a 3, and then Alex Lomax made a backcourt steal and passed to Davis at the top of the key for another 3. By time Davis made another fast-break layup with 3:36 left, the Tigers had doubled up Houston, 40-20.
Houston got within 55-50 with 11:03 left in the second half after Jamal Shead scored eight points in a row for them in a two-minute span. His 3-pointer capped a 12-1 run, and he made another long-range shot before two free throws, but that was the closest Houston would get.
Memphis, powered by more heroics from DeAndre Williams late, held on to beat Houston 75-65, claiming their first conference championship in a decade.
The Tigers automatically earned the league's NCAA Tournament bid with the win, and Penny Hardaway's team now heads to March Madness for the second year in a row.