MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Penny Hardaway has revived the excitement in men’s basketball Memphis. Now it’s time for the Tigers’ first-year coach to transfer the hoopla into wins.
He’s been both Pied Piper and promoter, but whether Hardaway and his staff can be as successful coaching as they have in renewing interest in the program will be the real validation of his hiring.
“What does coaching consist of?” said Hardaway, who coached East High to a third straight state title last season before taking the Memphis job. “Is it something different from what I’ve been doing?”
Of course, the answer is yes — and he understands that.
“There’s going to be situations that you get into that you’re going to need help, for sure,” Hardaway added. “But for the most part, I think coaching is just understanding who you have and your team, understanding yourself and understanding the situation.”
Hardaway’s college coaching initiation will be Nov. 6 against Tennessee Tech after a couple of dress rehearsals against area teams LeMoyne-Owen and Christian Brothers University. Memphis hired Hardaway last spring after letting Tubby Smith go after community interest and fans dwindled at Tigers’ games.
Memphis is hoping its favorite son can pick up the pieces.
“I was always on the cusp of whether I should come to the university or not …,” Hardaway recently said. “Now that I’ve made the decision, it’s made me realize this was something I always wanted to do and never really put it into the forefront.”
In Memphis, just the name Penny creates high expectations at Memphis. In the American Athletic Conference, confidence in Hardaway has the Tigers picked to finish fourth. Nationally, excitement and projections are a bit more tempered for a program that went 21-13 last season.
One of those differences coaching in college is recruiting, but Hardaway’s roster already reflects what his hiring has meant for Memphis.
His freshmen class includes guard Antwann Jones from Orlando, Florida; Memphis products Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax, along with Ryan Boyce and Hardaway’s son, Jayden. The sixth member of the class is sharp-shooter David Wingett from Nebraska, a Native American and member of the Winnegabo Tribe.
While this year’s freshmen are impressive, the recruitment of next year’s class may present a clearer barometer of the early buzz surrounding Hardaway. Among the 18,000 who attended Memphis Madness — the first time the Tigers had a capacity crowd for an event at FedExForum since 2014 — was James Wiseman, considered the nation’s top recruit by many.
“We Want Wiseman” chants rose from the crowd for the prospect who played for Hardaway at East High last season.
And Wiseman wasn’t alone among the recruits attending the big show that included rapper Yo Gotti. Top 50 prospects Precious Achiuwa, Trendon Watford, Jahmius Ramsey, Boogie Ellis and DJ Jeffries were there as well. Jeffries, who pulled his commitment to Kentucky in July , committed to Hardaway and Memphis last weekend.
As for his coaching strategy, Hardaway’s staff consists of two former NBA players (himself and Mike Miller); a former NBA coach of the year (Sam Mitchell with the Toronto Raptors); and former Ole Miss assistant and Hardaway’s former backcourt mate in college (Tony Madlock). He considers that a lot of knowledge on the Tigers’ bench.
Not to mention a group of coaches who can sell recruits on firsthand knowledge of know what it takes to get to the NBA, and to succeed at that level.
“I’m not the kind of coach who feels like they know everything and ‘Don’t say anything to me,'” said Hardaway, who played for four NBA teams over 15 seasons. “I’ll take their advice, but it’s up to me to make the final call.”
As busy as Hardaway has been revamping the roster, he’s also toughened up the Tigers’ schedule. They play LSU, Oklahoma State and possibly Villanova and Florida State in a November tournament with other nonconference games including South Dakota State and a visit from No. 6 Tennessee on Dec. 15 before diving into league play. And Memphis will host the American conference tournament in March.
Hardaway, 47, provided a few hints of how he wants to play with conditioning work on the opening day of practice. He wants the Tigers to run with not a lot of half-court sets and a pressure defensive scheme.
“We’re going to be a high-energy team,” he said. “I like to speed teams up. I don’t like them to get in their rhythm. I like to keep teams off balance.”
Whether that works remains to be seen. But until then, the Memphis fans see only a return to the university’s heyday, including a time when Hardaway was running the Tigers and flashing through the air, making spectacular plays.
They hope the promise of his coaching ability is akin to his promise when he signed as a Tiger player.
“They’re showing their appreciation for me coming back,” Hardaway said of the reaction from the Memphis fans. “Trying to help rebuild and put the university back to where it has always been — and that’s on top.”