Photo courtesy of Memphis Athletics
By David Cordova
Since his appointment as head coach at the University of Memphis last year, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway has made his program become very omnipresent throughout the college basketball scene. In the present day, great things are happening in the 901.
Today, Memphis is ranked No. 13 in the Associated Press national poll and has been getting better and better as a program. They are competing with national foes such as Duke and Kentucky and are becoming that many players want to play at.
On Columbus Day, Hardaway, along with his two star freshmen, James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, both of whom were top-20 recruits and McDonald’s All-American selections out of high school, all came out to the American Athletic Conference Media Day at the Airport Marriott in Philadelphia and showed the media and the rest of the world what the Tigers were all about.
“So many years, of Coach [Larry] Finch’s team and Derrick Rose and those guys in ’08, we’ve never been able to get over that threshold [of winning a championship, and I think ultimately, we all want one, for sure, and if we keep knocking on the door, and hopefully, a bunch,” said Hardaway.
On what it would mean to bring a championship to Memphis, he added: “That would mean a lot, because it would be the first, and it would be something that no coach has done in the city, and everybody knows how much I love Memphis, and to be able to do that for our city would be awesome.”
Last season, the Tigers had a productive first season under Hardaway as a head coach and finished to a 22-14 record and a second-round NIT appearance. Since his appointment there, the support has grown in Memphis and throughout the country.
This fall, he had a top-tier recruiting class, starting with two McDonald’s All=Americans in 7-foot-1 center James Wiseman and 6-foot-9 forward Precious Achiuwa. Other standouts included 6-foot-7 forward D.J. Jeffries, 6-foot-8 center Malcolm Dandridge, 6-foot-4 point guard Damion Baugh, 6-foot-4 shooting guard Lester Quinones and 6-foot-2 combo guard Rejean “Boogie” Ellis. That assortment of talent made them the No. 1 recruiting class throughout the nation.
Other standouts coming back from last season’s team included 5-foot-9 sophomore guard Tyler Harris, 6-foot guard Alex Lomax, 6-foot-6 guard Ryan Boyce, 6-foot-10 forward Isaiah Maurice and 6-foot-8 forward Isaiah Stokes, who is currently battling injuries.
On October 7th, Hardaway put together a “Pro Day,” event for NBA scouts from all thirty teams, so that they could see the talented Tigers group, many of whom are currently adjusting to college basketball.
When asked about the “Pro Day” event, Hardaway replied, “Yeah, the ‘Pro Day’ was a blessing, obviously to have all those teams and scouts in the building to watch our kids, to look at the kids like James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, but also to see Lester Quinones, Boogie Ellis and Damion Baugh, those type of guys, D.J. Jeffries, kids that are probably a little bit below the radar and aren’t as known as other kids and to see their skill set and to see them play five-on-five or three-on-three was big for all of them.”
Also, on October 3rd, the Tigers hosted their annual “Memphis Madness” event, in which 18,000 fans went to the FedEx Forum to check out this year’s squad. Also, there were performances from rappers such as Moneybagg Yo, Future, Young Dolph and Lil’ Baby.
“Well, I think the ‘Madness is not only about our current roster, it’s about the recruits that come in there,” said Hardaway about the event. “When you have that type of talent, you know that’s what they want, you want to give them an experience on that night that they’ll never forget and it was one of those experiences. Like you said, we had Moneybagg, we had Lil’ Baby, we had Future, we had Young Dolph, and that’s a crew within itself and the kids enjoyed themselves and when they enjoy themselves, we’re happy.”
When asked if he listened to those particular rappers, Hardaway jokingly replied, “I have to, because I’m around those kids all the time, so it’s not like I can’t, but I’m a fan.”
Also when asked about the special connection he has with the city, where he was born and raised, Hardaway replied, “Yeah, I think it’s – I can use the word, magical, because to be able to grow up in the city, and to stay home, I think you know they’ll – you’re there for life, honestly, because when you become a part of that family, it’s different than a kid growing up and going off to college than a kid growing up and staying home, it’s just different.”
On his recruiting pitch to in-state recruits in Tennessee, he replied, “Yeah, I think that obviously, when I walked those shoes already, it’s easy for me to go to those kids at home and say, ‘This was my path, this can be your path,’ You know obviously, they want to make it to the highest level, a lot of these kids, so, and then also after they’re done, look at how they treat us, the guys that stayed home and played college at the University. There’s a lot of perks in doing that, not only do they get the opportunity to win a national championship, but when you retire, you can always come back home and do whatever you need to do.”
The best part about playing for Hardaway is the fact that he’s been where the players are trying to go, the NBA. When asked about his tutelage to them, he replied, “I think, obviously, that’s a plus, because ultimately, like I said before, these kids want to go to the highest level, and if you played at the highest level, it’s easy to walk into a living room and say, ‘Hey, you want to get there? I can teach you how to get there. Yeah, I played there for 15 years, and you get a head start on what you really want to do, [by] playing for me.”
At the present time, the Tigers are rated No. 13 in the country by the Associated Press and are 4-1 on the season, after their win against Alcorn State today. But a lot of big games are coming up for the program, including the in-state matchup against Tennessee on December 14thin Knoxville.
But for right now, it’s all about this young team building and getting ready for AAC play, which starts at home on December 30thagainst Tulane.
When asked what can be expected of him and the squad moving forward, Hardaway replied, “Obviously, to understand our league better, great coaches, a very physical league, our non-conference is going to be very tough as well, it’s going to lead us up to our conference as well, so for me, I’m just going to try to stay strong, I’m going to try to stay mentally focused on what I have to focus on as a coach and not let anything else come in the way.”