UK Men's Basketball

How the college basketball coaching carousel could negatively affect UK recruiting

Penny Hardaway coached his Team Penny squad during a Nike event in Lexington in 2015.
Penny Hardaway coached his Team Penny squad during a Nike event in Lexington in 2015. Herald-Leader

Last year, the offseason coaching carousel in college basketball benefitted UK.

When Cuonzo Martin left California to become the head coach at Missouri, the Bears lost a commitment from four-star sharpshooter Jemarl Baker, who eventually signed with the Wildcats.

Baker is expected to miss the entirety of this season due to injury, but his late addition to UK’s 2017 class should pay off down the road.

The coaching carousel that will come this offseason could have a negative — and lasting — effect on the Wildcats’ program.

For those who follow UK basketball recruiting, tracking what Memphis East High School head coach Penny Hardaway does over the next few months will likely be as important as the movements of any one prospect.

And the buzz that Hardaway might be on the move is only intensifying.

Currently the coach at Memphis East, one of the top programs in the country this season, Hardaway is often mentioned in basketball circles as a coaching candidate at the college level in the near future.

Shortly after the announcement earlier this week that Andy Kennedy would not return as the head coach at Mississippi next season, Hardaway’s name popped up. national analyst Eric Bossi included the former NBA star on his list of six possible candidates for the soon-to-be-vacant Ole Miss job.

“Word is Hardaway would like to get involved in college coaching, and somebody is going to give him a shot,” Bossi wrote.

A similar list on also mentioned Hardaway as a possible fit at Ole Miss, which is located a little more than an hour down the road from Memphis. One blog dedicated to covering Ole Miss sports — Red Cup Rebellion — posted a story Wednesday calling for the Rebels to hire Hardaway as the next head coach.

His hometown school — also his alma mater — could be an even more realistic option.

The Memphis Tigers are struggling in their second season under Coach Tubby Smith, sitting seventh in the American Athletic Conference, and — barring a league tournament title next month — on their way to a fourth straight year without an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Tubby Smith is in his second season at Memphis. Brandon Dill AP

For months, at least, there’s been speculation in grassroots basketball circles that Hardaway might be the next head coach of the Tigers.

The reason for such speculation is obvious.

He’s one of the best players in the program’s history. He’s a hometown kid who has kept close ties to the university and the city. And, most importantly, he’s earned the reputation as a solid head coach and program builder — albeit not yet at the college level.

In addition to being the coach at Memphis East, Hardaway is the head of the Team Penny summer program, annually one of the top teams on the Nike circuit, which is the top travel league in the country. Last fall, he was one of the few on-court coaches at the USA Basketball junior minicamp in Colorado, a camp that included many of the best high school prospects in the 2018, 2019 and 2020 classes.

He’s attracted top talent to his Team Penny program and Memphis East over the past few years, and those players — including UK freshman PJ Washington — have always had glowing things to say about their time with the four-time NBA all-star and his positive influence on their game.

Safe to say, Hardaway would make for a formidable recruiter as the head of a major college basketball program.

It’s also nearing the time that Hardaway could be ready to make the jump to the college ranks, though he hasn’t said much publicly about such a move. (Dana O’Neil’s excellent story for The Athletic this week chronicled both the groundswell of support for “Penny-to-Memphis” but also some of the challenges standing in its way, and Hardaway didn’t grant an interview for the article.)

Hardaway did make an appearance on a recent episode of recruiting analyst Evan Daniels’ podcast, where he was asked about aspirations to coach in college. Hardaway started by saying that he never thought he would coach high school ball, but he got in at the middle school level, wanted to stay with that group of kids through high school, and made the move to Memphis East as a result.

He also noted that those kids are seniors this season.

“I will never say never,” Hardaway said on the podcast about a possible college coaching career.

So, what does any of this have to do with Kentucky basketball?

The star player for both Team Penny and Memphis East is James Wiseman, the No. 1 high school junior in the country and probably UK’s biggest recruiting target, regardless of age.

Wiseman — a 6-foot-11 power forward — was at UK for Big Blue Madness and hasn’t shied away from talk that the Wildcats are the top school in his recruitment. Pretty much everyone in recruiting circles expects him to sign with Kentucky at some point. Unless Hardaway is a college coach somewhere else, that is.

After playing for Hardaway on the Nike circuit, Wiseman transferred from a school in Nashville to play at Memphis East this season. The rumors that Wiseman is contemplating a move to the 2018 class have persisted despite his comments to the Herald-Leader and others last December that such a reclassification is “not an option.”

One of Wiseman’s teammates on Team Penny is D.J. Jeffries, a five-star small forward in the 2019 class who also has an early scholarship offer from Kentucky. Jeffries is also from the Memphis area, and he also speaks highly of Hardaway.

UK is the leader on Jeffries’ 247Sports Crystal Ball page, and John Calipari watched him play in a game at Marshall County High School in December.

“I wanted to go to Memphis until he left,” Jeffries said that night. “It’s an honor to know that a coach like Calipari is watching me. He’s one of the legendary coaches.”

Wiseman, Jeffries and their peers weren’t even born yet as Hardaway’s basketball career was at its peak and might not know a whole lot about his playing days — “I don’t think they have a clue,” Hardaway said on the subject during Daniels’ podcast last month — but they all seem drawn to the Memphis native once they get to know him.

Bottom line: If Hardaway ends up on a college sideline later this year or next, UK might immediately go from favorites to underdogs for two of its biggest recruiting targets. And Hardaway could be a recruiting force for five-star prospects for many years to follow.