All things considered, Memphis State Coach Larry Finch is grateful to be participating in the NCAA basketball tournament.
Given the strength of the Tigers' schedule and the inexperience of their best players, Finch had plenty of doubts when the season started.
"I knew we were good enough, but to get together and do it, that's what concerned me," he said. "You don't play the kind of schedule we played with young people and expect to win."
As it turned out, the young people were the least of Finch's worries.
Led by first-year players Anfernee Hardaway and David Vaughn, Memphis State was 4-4 against nationally ranked teams and 7-7 against teams that qualified for the NCAA tournament. The Tigers finished the regular season 20-10, good enough to gain an NCAA at-large bid and a first-round meeting with Pepperdine (24-6) in the Midwest Regional at noon PST, Thursday at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.
Memphis State is seeded sixth; Pepperdine 11th.
Finch, whose team is making its first NCAA appearance since 1989, credits the impact made by Hardaway and Vaughn as the primary reason for the Tigers' improvement over last season's 17-15 team. Hardaway, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, plays small forward and guard. Vaughn, a 6-10 freshman who happens to be Finch's nephew, plays power forward and center.
"I'm extremely happy with these two young men," Finch said. "They are two great ones."
Yet, at one point last year, it was questionable whether Hardaway would get a chance to showcase his talents at the Pyramid, the new, 20,000-seat arena where Memphis State plays.
Academically ineligible as a freshman last season, Hardaway was dealt another setback in April when he was robbed and shot in the foot outside a cousin's home in Memphis. The bullet ricocheted off the pavement and struck Hardaway as he ran from his assailants.
Hardaway's wound was not serious, but the bullet broke three bones in his right foot and could not be removed until October, after the threat of nerve damage had passed.
Although the recovery was smooth, Finch said Hardaway picked up some bad habits while his foot was in a cast.
"He started shooting set shots," Finch said. "He has to get his jump shot back to where it was."
Hardaway's 43% shooting has been one of the weak links in his game, but overall he has performed remarkably for a first-year player. He leads Memphis State in scoring at 17.3 points, in assists at 5.5 and in steals at 2.6. And he ranks second in rebounding, 7.2, and blocked shots, 1.3.
The versatile Hardaway was the only player in the country this season to finish in his conference's top five in all five major statistical categories. And he entertained Tiger fans with 32 dunks and 55 three-point shots, a school single-season record.
Hardaway was selected most valuable player and newcomer of the year in the Great Midwest Conference, although Memphis State finished third, behind Cincinnati and DePaul. The Tigers were second to Cincinnati at the conference tournament last weekend.
Nonetheless, Pepperdine forward Geoff Lear came away with an indifferent opinion of Hardaway after watching Memphis State videos.
"He looked good, but he was out of control sometimes," Lear said. "He's a scorer. He wants to score as much as possible. Sometimes you can frustrate players like that if you can get them out of their rhythm."
Lear is more concerned with Vaughn, the player he is expected to match up against. Vaughn averages 13.4 points and a team-leading 8.6 rebounds.
"He's got a couple of inches on me and he's physical, but he tends to draw fouls," Lear said of Vaughn. "He's a shot blocker. I have to think about the pump fake and getting him up in the air. He can't hurt you if he's on the bench."
Guard Billy Smith averages 10.8 points, and 6-7, 255-pound center Anthony Douglas and 6-7, 230-pound reserve forward Kelvin Allen are both forces inside for Memphis State.
Finch, perhaps choosing not to put too much pressure on his players, said he has no expectations for the Tigers in the NCAA tournament.
"My philosophy has always been, 'Where there's a will, there's a way,' " he said. "If you set your mind to it, you can do it. We just want to go in and play well."