Memphis basketball suddenly finds itself in the danger zone. Here's how it got there.

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  • Penny Hardaway
    Penny Hardaway
    American basketball player

ATHENS, Ga. — All is not well in Tiger Country.

Memphis basketball walked out of Stegeman Coliseum Wednesday with its second loss in a span of six days, leaving the No. 19 Tigers (5-2) vulnerable to an early season exit from the Top 25 polls. Demoralized, players and coaches alike exited the visitors' locker room sullen – one long face after another. As if the 82-79 setback to Georgia (3-5) wasn't bad enough as a Quad 3 loss, talk of failure and internal discord dominated the conversation afterward.

Tigers coach Penny Hardaway did not mince words specifically by calling his veterans out, questioning their level of commitment to the greater good. Star freshman Emoni Bates echoed Hardaway, declaring "we're not together as a team." Hardaway went so far as to admit he's reached a "low point."

Why? According to Hardaway, the issues Memphis – ranked as high as No. 9 in the nation as recently as last week – is dealing with aren't new.

“It’s the same problem we saw from the preseason games and they’re still there now,” Hardaway said. “We’re not turning a corner. We don’t look like we have fun playing with one another. It seems like everybody still tries to put it on their back. Even though we had more assists, even though we moved the ball from strong to weak (side), it was just still guys pouting. It’s been happening since the first game. Guys are willing to lose if they’re not getting their way.

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“That’s tough to watch.”

Hardaway said Memphis' issues predominantly showed up on the defensive end of the floor Wednesday. That's particularly troubling given his predilection for elite-level defense. The Tigers came into the game ranked third in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. Instead of living up to that billing, Memphis allowed a season-high in points to a team playing without point guard Aaron Cook, who has the fourth-most assists in the country.

Georgia's plan of attack down the stretch, according to Hardaway, consisted of milking the shot clock down to approximately 15 seconds before either converting layups, drawing fouls or rebounding missed shots off high ball screens. Freshman Christian Wright, averaging less than five points a game before Wednesday, was the primary beneficiary of the Bulldogs' strategy. He hit three layups in fewer than three minutes late in the game and finished with a career-high 17 points.

“All we had to do was go under it and then the big man just had to cushion it and then just catch his man as he got back into the play and it’s over,” Hardaway said. “Every timeout, we reiterated what was going to happen and that’s exactly what happened. I mean, what can you do?”

Memphis' core of veterans – Alex Lomax, DeAndre Williams, Lester Quinones and Landers Nolley II – bore the brunt of Hardaway's ire. He said he holds them to a higher standard than the 17-year-old Bates and fellow freshman starter Jalen Duren, who turned 18 last month. What bothers Hardaway most, he said, is he can't tell how much Lomax, Williams, Quinones and Nolley care about winning.

“Even though we had more assists, even though we moved the ball (better) from strong (side) to weak (side), it was just still guys pouting,” he said. “It looked like an AAU team out there. It looks really bad. Those veteran players understand what it takes to win. We’ve already been through this last year when we went to South Dakota (and lost two out of three games). To continue to compete like that, to not help Emoni, to not help Jalen understand the magnitude of what’s going on ... to me, it just doesn’t seem like it hurts enough.”

Despite the dose of brutal honesty Hardaway administered, he says he's not panicking. The Tigers, however, must turn things around soon. Memphis travels to Ole Miss (5-2) on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2) and hosts No. 16 Alabama on Dec. 14, followed by a neutral-site game against No. 15 Tennessee on Dec. 18 in Nashville.

“I’m not giving up or giving in,” he said. “We’ve got to get it right. If we’re going to do anything this year, we’ve got to get it right.”

“All we’ve got to do is come together,” Bates said. “If we come together, it’s gonna be hard for teams to beat us. We come together, that’s going to solve every problem we have right now.”

Reach sports writer Jason Munz at jason.munz@commercialappeal.com or on Twitter @munzly.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis basketball: How the Tigers got themselves in the danger zone

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