As August comes to a close, the month concludes as arguably the best of Penny Hardaway’s coaching career. Memphis has become the buzziest team in college basketball’s offseason, doing so thanks to the type of recruiting prowess that Hardaway sold Memphis on when he was hired in 2018.
On Aug. 6, five-star center/former No. 1 Class of ’22 prospect Jalen Duren reclassified and committed to Memphis for the upcoming season. Nineteen days later, one of the most well-known/hyped prospects of the past 15 years, Emoni Bates, also reclassified and enrolled at Memphis. Some coup.
Now Memphis has the best recruiting class in the country, according to 247 Sports. It’s the second time in three years Hardaway’s pulled this off.
The Duren-Bates combo amounts to one of the biggest 1-2 recruiting gets of the past decade-plus in college basketball, and when you consider how late they committed to the university, it’s probably the best pair of pledges any school — I’m talking ever — has gotten this close to the start of a fall semester. The Tigers are also bringing on a pair of four-star small forwards (Johnathan Lawson, Josh Minott) and will return the likes of Landers Nolley (13.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), DeAndre Williams (11.7 ppg 5.8 rpg) and Lester Quinones (9.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg).
Oh, right: toss in the Tigers adding Rasheed Wallace (!) and 80-year-old Larry Brown as assistant coaches, too. This is the most interesting offseason acquisition of coaching personnel and player talent in college basketball … I’ve ever seen?
Time to win, and win big, is now
The pressure — real pressure — is very much on. Locally, sure, Hardaway’s been living in something of a fishbowl since taking the job. But he also has had a lot of capacity and a lot of patience provided by the local base that loves him. Hardaway’s record with the Tigers is an acceptable 63-32 through three seasons.
The oddity: no NCAA Tournament appearances. The first season was a 22-14 affair that ended with a two-and-through showing in the NIT. Jeremiah Martin, Kyvon Davenport, Raynere Thornton and Tyler Harris were the guys earning the most playing time. (Penny didn’t inherit much from Tubby Smith.) All told, it was a good first season, with the excitable promises for Year Two that gave Memphis the kind of publicity and hype that the Hardaway hire essentially promised.
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But then James Wiseman only played three games, as Memphis found itself in trouble with the NCAA in a case that still hasn’t been resolved (more on that in a minute). The Wiseman situation was disappointment-turned-fiasco, though the Tigers became a great defensive team — without much offense to balance — on the way to a 21-10 finish that season. Yes, the pandemic ended the NCAA Tournament before it could ever begin, but the Tigers didn’t have the résumé for clearance anyway. That was an NIT team, not an NCAA tourney one.
And then last season it was more of the same, just without a marquee player. Memphis again was NIT-level; the Tigers in fact wound up winning it. With a 20-8 record, an NIT title and the No. 1-rated per-possession defense in college basketball according to KenPom.com, it was Hardaway’s best season yet. Memphis finished third in the AAC standings, trailing Wichita State and Houston, both of which made the NCAAs, the latter going all the way to the Final Four.
But the time for NIT runs being an acceptable thing is done.
This year needs to be the glow-up. With Duren and Bates in the fold, plus six players back from last season’s team (three of them serious minutes-getters), this has become The Year. There will be questions as to who can dependably play the point, but that’s analysis that can wait until December. Big picture: Hardaway has nearly everything he should need in order to not just coach a good team, but to have a squad that breaks through to mainstream relevance and Final Four contention.
Memphis hired him to get it back to the level it was at with John Calipari. You know: 30-win seasons, No. 1 seeds, Final Four runs. With what should be a universally regarded preseason top 10 team, it’s time we applied Cal-sized expectations to complement the standard Memphis, and Penny, have set for themselves.
No coach enters this forthcoming season with more pressure than Hardaway. He was hired to sell tickets, fill FedExForum, lure top-10 recruiting classes and win NCAA Tournament games. The first two were simple enough; it’s Penny, after all, and he’s as lauded as any sports figure to ever come out of the Bluff City. That third item — the recruiting classes — has gone even better than anticipated.
The winning is always the rub. He’s done some, but this will be the year that good-not-great won’t be good enough. Rare is the major American city that has an NBA franchise but at the same time prides itself even more on its devotion to the local college team. Memphis is that. It’s a unique American sports city.
So this will be the most anticipated season for the Tigers since Derrick Rose got to campus.
A serious potential obstacle
Amid all this, there remains hazards for high drama. The Wiseman case was the first to be accepted by the NCAA’s complex case unit and subsequently forwarded to the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP) for adjudication. The IARP, which was introduced in 2019, has been something of a quagmire behind the scenes. Its very existence and protocols were reworked earlier this summer in an effort to speed up the backlog of cases.
The committee still hasn’t decided on a single case. Memphis is supposed to be first. The people on the IARP board are largely former investigators and prosecutors — but not those who work directly for the NCAA. And when a case is decided upon, no matter how favorable or unfavorable, the decision is final. No appeal. We’re at 21 months since the Wiseman debacle began, and there’s still radio silence. Sources with insights to the Memphis case have speculated the expectation is the school will find out its fate before the year ends. Will that happen before the season begins? With Memphis players already enrolled, is it fair to do? Either way, things are seldom simple when it comes to this program.
Here’s Hardaway with this glitzy roster, the most fascinating staff in the sport and probably the best Memphis team in a dozen years. Will the IARP lay the hammer down and decimate it? There’s still an albatross hanging over this program, which made Duren’s and Bates’ decisions all the more intriguing. Will Hardaway face any type of lengthy suspension? Will the program be slammed with a 2022 postseason ban? At this point, almost no one truly knows. But that decision stands to be one of the biggest awaiting the sport for the season forthcoming.
Memphis hired Penny to make noise, win games and return the glory to Memphis basketball. It’s damn noisy now, and there are a few ways in which the din could ricochet across the sport later this year. No matter which direction things go, it’s easy to see how 2021-22 will shape as the most consequential season Penny Hardaway will ever have as a coach.