It was a tight one for 28 minutes on Thursday until the Zags went on a 29-4 run over seven minutes in the middle of the second half. We tried to tell anyone that would listen heading into Thursday that the Georgia State Panthers were noticeably under seeded and better than their record suggested. The matchup with Memphis, a team that has found a winning identity since February, is no different
Meet the opponent
Memphis 22-10, 13-5, KenPom #26
It was a tale of highs and extreme lows for Penny Hardaway’s Tigers. The men at Memphis State were ranked as a top 12 team when the season went underway. They had the top-end 2023 recruits Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates reclassify to join a couple of four-star commits. The talent was there, albeit questions remained on how they were going to gel together.
The team lost four straight to Iowa State, Georgia, Ole Miss and Murray State. Questions began to circle the program on whether Hardaway could right the ship. Then they beat an Alabama team fresh off their victories over Gonzaga and Houston. Then, the Tigers proceeded to lose their American Conference opener against Tulane, a team that would finish the season at 14-15.
Then things started getting ugly. The Tigers went .500 in their next six games and assistant coach Rasheed Wallace decided to leave the bench and take on a “consulting” role. Hardaway chided reports in a presser following their loss to SMU that the treatment he receives is unfair:
I think the one thing I can say to this media because this media kinda gets kind of [expletive] up sometimes when it comes to me. We don’t have our full roster. Y’all know we don’t have our full roster. Stop asking me stupid [expletive] questions about if I feel like I can do something. If I had my roster like they did, then I feel like I could do whatever I want to do. My boys are playing really hard. I’m coaching really hard. I’m not embarrassed about nothing. We have four freshmen starting. Y’all need to act like it. Act like we have 17 to 18 to 19-year-olds out here trying to learn to play against 22, 23, and 24-year-old guys. Come on man. Stop disrespecting me, bro. Like, don’t do that. I work too [expletive] hard. I work way too [expletive] hard for you to do that. You all write these bullshit articles about me and all I do is work. We got young kids on the floor. They have young kids on the floor.
A week later the struggling freshman Bates (9.9 points on 39% shooting from the field) would leave the team with a back injury and stay in his home state of Michigan. But something clicked. Removing another ball-dominant player allowed for a more streamlined offense. Junior Landers Noley flourished in returning to his starting role. Guards Lester Quinones and Alex Lomas stepped up and played more consistent guard play to close and Memphis became one of the strongest teams in the country. The analytics metrics from Torvik have Memphis as the 6th best team in the country since the end of January.
And the Tigers are confident. Noley said about the matchup with the Zags, saying also that Memphis is as good as a one seed. “I feel like we’re still the hunted,” Noley said. “I feel like they know we don’t belong as a number nine seed and I feel like they haven’t seen a team like us.”
What to watch for
The battle of the bigs will be worth keeping an eye on. We’ve debated freshman Chet Holmgren and big man Drew Timme’s ability to score on long athletic defenders. Duren, Nolley and senior DeAndre Williams have the length to disrupt a lot of frontcourt offenses so this will be something to watch out for. Holmgren is still hunting his three-point shot since a cold close to the season and conference tournament. He went 0-2 on Thursday. If Holmgren is able to bring his defender out to the three-point line, Memphis could have issues limiting Timme.
The matchup of the frontcourts will absolutely be something to keep an eye on for both sides of the court. How Few utilizes Holmgren and Anton Watson to disrupt Duren and the rest from attacking the basket will be something to keep an eye on.
But what will truly depict this game is whether or not Memphis will make terrible decisions and execute poorly as they have for the majority of the season. The team is near the bottom of the country in every ball control metric you can find. They are the worst in the country in steals allowed per possession. They are 352nd in non-steal turnovers committed this season. They have three straight games of 15 turnovers committed or more. Adding Memphis’ proclivity to try to get out in transition, Gonzaga could feast with the pace and the sloppiness.
Andrew Nembhard is averaging 9 assists in his last three games and an offensive rating of 131. In a season where we’ve heralded and heaped praise on the deserving frontcourt, the experience from the backcourt including Rasir Bolton could pay dividends in this game and the games ahead. Getting Bolton and Nembhard in the fastbreak could be a backbreaker for Hardaway’s Tigers.