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Memphis is playing with fire, cruising for another early tournament exit under Penny Hardaway

Despite their record, the Tigers are playing below their potential and are barreling towards another disappointment in March.

Syndication: The Commercial Appeal Chris Day/The Commercial Appeal / USA TODAY NETWORK

Before the start of the 2023-24 campaign, Memphis Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway said that his team’s tough non-conference slate was basically their entire season. And that line of thinking was understandable.

The American Athletic Conference took a huge blow in quality with the departures of Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF to the Big 12. Even with the addition of surprise Final Four participant Florida Atlantic, the AAC looks to be a one, maybe two-bid league for the NCAA Tournament moving forward, forcing an aspirational power like Memphis to beef up its non-conference schedule.

Well, Hardaway’s Tigers haven’t looked like a juggernaut in AAC play and they were humbled in a 74-73 upset loss to USF on Thursday. This wasn’t just a typical upset where the No. 10 team in the country has an off night against an unranked opponent. This was a full blown collapse as Memphis held a 20-point lead early in the second half, only to stand by and watch as the Bulls chipped away. It was the largest blown lead by an AP Top-10 team at home in 14 seasons and they are destined to tumble down the polls on Monday.

But if you’ve been paying attention, this shouldn’t be a surprise.

Memphis has been playing with fire throughout the year and that’s been incredibly evident since AAC play began. Respective one-score victories over Tulsa and SMU were followed up with a 107-101 overtime win over UTSA, a team currently ranked No. 284 in KenPom. A 26-point beatdown of a bad Wichita State team was the first time they looked the part of a big fish in a small pond, only to turn around and experience Thursday’s debacle against USF.

The Tigers are now an abysmal 1-8 against the spread at home this season, an indicator that they are letting opponents come into FedExForum and dictate the terms of the game instead of the other way around. The team has had to work through communication and chemistry issues in these tight moments and Hardaway himself admitted this after Thursday’s loss:

Now from a 30,000-foot view, Memphis could definitely be in a worse spot than they are right now. After all, the team is 15-3 on the year and most programs would kill to have a veteran forward-guard combo like David Jones and Jahvon Quinerly. But we’ve seen this movie before and underachievement has become a trend for Hardaway’s program.

Since the NBA legend took over at his alma mater for the 2018-19 season, the Tigers have just one conference tournament title and two NCAA Tournament appearances. This would be fine before you consider the amount of talent that he’s brought to the program. He landed the No. 1 recruiting classes in 2019 and 2021, respectively, and has done an effective job at getting guys like Jones, Quinerly, and Nae’Qwan Tomlin through the transfer portal.

And yet, they’ve never looked like a team with a head and shoulders talent advantage over most of their conference peers they’re already scrapping it out in a league play this season. And they haven’t even played the aforementioned FAU yet.

Barring a collapse down the stretch, the Tigers will most likely make the NCAA Tournament field of 68 this March. But from what we’re seeing from this team right now, I wouldn’t expect Hardaway and company to do much against the bigger powers of the sport. And that tough non-conference schedule will be rendered meaningless.