Penny Hardaway was hired at Memphis in March 2018 without having ever coached above the high school level. So, naturally, there were skeptics. To some at the time, it seemed like a desperate and misguided move. And yet, not even two years later, it’s now difficult to find anybody trying to argue against the idea that Memphis’ hiring of Hardaway has been a smashing success to date.
He promised he’d get players. Then he went out and got players.
“We shocked a lot of people,” Hardaway says in reference to the fact that he secured the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class in 2019, one that’s highlighted by five-star prospects James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa. “They definitely underestimated what we were going to do.”
Hardaway’s ability to upgrade and overhaul the Memphis roster — every player is now a player he recruited — has turned the Tigers into favorites in the AAC and contenders to make the 2020 Final Four. They’ll be young, sure. But the talent in the program is the best it’s been in years.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Penny Hardaway
2018-19 RECORD (SEC): 22-14 (11-7)
2018-19 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Creighton 79-67 in the second round
G Kareem Brewton Jr. (8.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
F Kyvon Davenport (13.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg)
G Jeremiah Martin (19.7 ppg, 4.4 apg)
G Raynere Thornton (7.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg)
The Tigers had no rim protector last season — one reason why opponents shot nearly 50 percent against them inside the arc. But the arrival of Wiseman means that shouldn’t be a problem anymore. The 7'1" center is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft thanks to his unique ability to alter shots, run the floor like a much smaller man and score around, and away from, the basket. He’s a special talent who should have no peer in the AAC.
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Wiseman will be joined up front by Achiuwa, a 6'9" forward who also projects as an NBA Lottery pick. So it’s hardly a stretch to suggest Memphis might have the most talented frontcourt in the nation thanks to the presence of those two heralded freshmen.
Depth will be provided by Louisville transfer Lance Thomas, former junior college standout Isaiah Maurice and, if he doesn’t take a medical redshirt because of an injury suffered in high school, freshman Malcolm Dandridge.
“I feel like with Precious, James and Lance, we have one of the best frontcourts in the nation,” says Lester Quinones, a freshman guard who played a role in helping recruit Achiuwa to campus.
Memphis doesn’t have the same type of one-and-done talent on the perimeter that it has on the interior. But there are still lots of interesting pieces that’ll provide Hardaway with a bevy of options. “It’s been like daydreaming in heaven — just thinking about the [combinations that] can be on the court,” Hardaway says.
Boogie Ellis, a freshman who signed with Duke but later got a release and committed to Memphis, is expected to be the primary point guard, where sophomore Alex Lomax backs him up. Quinones, freshman Damion Baugh and sophomore Tyler Harris will compete for minutes off the ball. And D.J. Jeffries, a freshman who committed to Kentucky but signed with Memphis after Hardaway, his former grassroots coach, got the job, is the best wing option. The Tigers could also play three-guard lineups designed to surround Wiseman with shooters capable of making opponents pay for doubling the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Hardaway will likely start five freshmen and thus spend the season coaching what will be one of the most talented, and most inexperienced, teams in the country. What he’s counting on is that the talent will be more of an advantage than the inexperience is a disadvantage. As always, we’ll see. But given the success programs like Duke and Kentucky have had in recent years while relying on first-year studs, and the lack of comparable talent in the AAC, there’s really no reason to believe Memphis will do anything but overwhelm most opponents on its schedule. “Yeah, that’s the plan,” Quinones acknowledges. “Just demolish teams with our talent.”
Postseason Prediction: Elite Eight
AAC Prediction: 1st