It became more of a thing than it should have been, probably. It was just a new way of expressing an old idea, a phrase to be used synonymously with “we’re confident” or “we won’t back down” or “I really love my team.” But of course it became a thing. When Penny Hardaway, former NBA star turned high school hoops power broker turned first-year Memphis coach, immediately lands the top recruiting class in the country, and then tells reporters “This is Memphis. We don’t bluff. We want all the smoke,” as one giant flex, well, yes, guess what: It’s going to be a thing.
Except, funny enough, that smoke — that notion that the proud, brash Memphis Tigers were here right now, right away, ready to compete for national titles whether you liked it or not — never actually materialized. When Hardaway uttered the phrase, he was set to welcome in James Wiseman, the top player in the 2019 class, alongside fellow five-star Precious Achiuwa, alongside five other four-star prospects, three of whom ranked among the nation’s top 60 recruits. Then, thanks to an $11,500 payment Hardaway made to Wiseman’s family for moving expenses before Hardaway was the Memphis coach, the nation’s top NBA Draft prospect was suspended for 12 games, at which point Wiseman just called it quits on the whole collegiate career altogether.
That second Hardaway team wasn’t bad — Achiuwa was an interesting player, and the group finished top five in adjusted defensive efficiency — but at 21-10 it was nothing like the glamorous Wiseman-led force Hardaway undoubtedly had in mind when he was welcoming all of the heat the world of college basketball could give off. Last season, Memphis finished 20-8. Again, the Tigers guarded great. Again, they could be an ugly watch. Mostly, they were just sort of there. The Hardaway-era Tigers still haven’t made an NCAA Tournament. This was what college hoops was supposed to fear?
As it turns out, fast forward to the summer of 2021, in the wake of Emoni Bates’ long-awaited announcement, and what else can you say but that Hardaway has finally achieved his goal? What else can you admit but that he has finally managed to give this sport a reason to focus on him and his team above all else? What else can you acknowledge except that a) Memphis is probably going to be very good and b) Memphis might also be kind of a circus, and that both of things should be totally enthralling for the next eight months?