Penny Hardaway didn’t come to Memphis to win American Athletic Conference championships or build a sustainable NCAA tournament entrant. His ambitions were much bigger than that. When Hardaway returned to his alma mater as head coach, he wanted to make Memphis one of the premier programs in the country. Through his first three years, it’s been a work in progress.
Hardaway has won more than 20 games in each of his first three seasons. He landed the top recruiting class in America in 2019, headlined by No. 1 overall prospect James Wiseman. He’s built an identity for his team that starts on the defensive end: the Tigers finished with the best defense in DI last year, and they were No. 5 in the defensive efficiency rankings a year earlier. He’s taken Memphis basketball from something rarely made a blip on radar outside of the local market during the days of Josh Pastner and Tubby Smith and elevated it into a program that drives discussion on a national scale.
He also still hasn’t made the NCAA tournament. The Tigers did hang a banner as NIT champs last year, but that isn’t exactly worth bragging about. At some point, Hardaway has to win at a high level to justify the buzz. The pressure to do so starts now.
Emoni Bates — one of the hyped prospects of his generation — committed to Memphis recently. Somehow, he isn’t the highest ranked incoming recruit on the team. That honor goes to center Jalen Duren. The Tigers had what felt like a top No. 20 team in the preseason rankings before Bates joined, but they might be a top-10 team with the upside to win the whole thing. At least that’s the goal.
The Tigers are the most fascinating team in college hoops on the brink of a new season. Here’s why.
Penny Hardaway can become college basketball’s next marquee coach
College basketball is entering a period of transition in terms of the coaches who have defined the sport. This is Mike Krzyzewski’s last dance at Duke. Roy Williams retired. Jim Boeheim is 76 years old. John Calipari, Bill Self, Jay Wright, and Tom Izzo are still doing their thing, but it feels like there’s room for a new face of college basketball to emerge.
Hardaway is the obvious candidate. He’s young and charismatic and has a built-in personal brand for his legendary NBA career. He’s the type of person that anyone who loves the sport will be attracted to regardless of their age. He was already a superstar as a player and is on the brink of earning the same status as a coach.
All he needs to do is win. It’s easier said than done.
Rasheed Wallace and Larry Brown are the most high-profile assistant coaches in the country
Hardaway hired a big name assistant as soon as he took the Memphis job when he got Mike Miller to join the program shortly after he retired from the NBA. While Miller eventually moved on, Hardaway didn’t waste any time getting two more famed assistants this season: Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace.
Brown is about to turn 81 years old, but he’s one of the best basketball coaches ever. He has experience in the college game by winning a national championship as head coach at Kansas in 1988 in addition to his NBA success. Today’s recruits may not know much about Brown, but he’ll be an invaluable resource to Penny on the bench as he tries to win at a high level.