UK Recruiting

One year in, the Penny Hardaway era at Memphis gets glowing reviews from recruits

Trendon Watford thinks he could learn a lot from Penny Hardaway

McDonald's All-American forward Trendon Watford talks about Penny Hardaway and his program at Memphis, which is one of the five-star recruit's top schools.
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McDonald's All-American forward Trendon Watford talks about Penny Hardaway and his program at Memphis, which is one of the five-star recruit's top schools.

This time last year, everyone in college basketball recruiting circles was buzzing about Penny Hardaway and the future of his Memphis Tigers program.

Hardaway — the NBA star-turned-AAU and high school coach — had replaced Tubby Smith as the head coach at his alma mater and returned Memphis basketball to relevance overnight, but there were still questions. Could he translate his grassroots ties to major recruiting success? Could he actually coach at the college level?

After year one of the Hardaway experiment, the reviews are generally positive.

And the future still looks bright for the Tigers.

“I thought that once he got settled with his personnel, he showed that he has the chops to coach,” Rivals.com national analyst Corey Evans told the Herald-Leader. “That, coinciding with the recruiting end — which kind of all speaks for itself — I think it’s been a very, very successful first year.”

Memphis fell short of the NCAA Tournament — going 22-14 overall and making it to the second round of the NIT — but the Tigers bought in to Hardaway’s coaching, and he made it to the postseason with a group of players who were, for the most part, lightly regarded as prospects.

Hardaway’s leading scorer and assist man, senior Jeremiah Martin, was an unranked three-star player in high school. His leading rebounder, senior Kyvon Davenport, was a junior-college transfer. The only other player on the team to average double-digit scoring, freshman Tyler Harris, was the No. 72 recruit in the Rivals rankings for 2018, a late addition to the team after Hardaway took over last spring, and the only top 100 national prospect on the Tigers’ roster.

Memphis played close games against high NCAA seeds Tennessee, Houston and Louisiana State, and the Tigers won eight of 11 games to close the season (with all three losses coming to NCAA Tournament teams).

“I think it shows that he’s capable of maxing out his guys and figuring out the best place and best roles for his guys to succeed,” Evans said. “And that goes into the coaching and getting the best out of his guys. And, also, it’s about having the willingness to play for your coach. It shows those guys are willing to play for Penny.”

Recruits are certainly willing to play for him, too.

Hardaway won’t be lacking for stars next season. His four-player group (so far) for 2019 features James Wiseman — the consensus No. 1 player in the class — plus top-50 prospect DJ Jeffries, top-100 recruit Damion Baugh, and center Malcolm Dandridge, the No. 106 player in the Rivals rankings. The class ranks No. 9 nationally on Rivals.com’s board.

To build that class, Hardaway became a major thorn in John Calipari’s side.

Wiseman and Jeffries — who both played their high school ball in the Memphis area — were the first two prospects from the 2019 class to land UK scholarship offers. Jeffries was actually committed to the Cats before becoming UK’s first “decommitment” in 10 years under Calipari so he could play for Hardaway, his former AAU coach. Wiseman was UK’s most-coveted target for 2019, and he, too, chose his former high school and Nike league coach over the Cats.

“It was pretty tough, but I just had to make a decision that was best for me,” Wiseman told the Herald-Leader at the recent McDonald’s All-American Game. “I really think that Memphis was a great decision for me. I’m giving the city of Memphis hope, but also just being coached by an NBA coaching staff in college basketball. … They have NBA experience, and that’s where I’m trying to get to.”

That pitch has clearly resonated with top recruits.

Five-star prospect Matthew Hurt — another McDonald’s All-American — has narrowed his list to the blue-blood quartet of Duke, Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina, but he kept Memphis in the conversation due to that NBA pedigree.

“They had a good first year,” he told the Herald-Leader. “It’s kind of hard coming in when most of those guys are not their recruits. So it’s hard, but I think they’ve done a good job. What they have against everybody is that NBA experience. They know what it takes to get there.”

Hardaway’s staff includes former NBA rookie of the year Mike Miller — a two-time league champion — as well as former NBA coach of the year Sam Mitchell (a league veteran himself) and longtime assistant Tony Madlock, one of Hardaway’s college teammates.

“That means a lot,” said Trendon Watford, another uncommitted McDonald’s All-American on Memphis’ wish list. “They’ve obviously played the game. Coach Penny, he’s obviously played at the highest level. Coach Mike Miller, Coach Sam Mitchell — they all played at the highest level, and that’s where I want to be. … I feel like it’ll be a great program, once he’s able to get all of his players in. Next year, he’ll have a lot of his players there.”

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The Tigers are still recruiting Watford, five-star McDonald’s All-American Precious Achiuwa, and top-50 prospect Lester Quinones to round out the 2019 class. Evans said they appear to be in particularly good shape with Quinones — one of the best backcourt scorers in America — and noted that Memphis could also be considered frontrunners if five-star guards RJ Hampton and Jalen Green decide to reclassify from 2020 to 2019. (Both Green and Hampton are UK targets).

“I think they’re going to get at least one of those five guys,” he said. “And potentially end up with the best class in America.”

Landing a player or two out of the aforementioned five would certainly put them in that conversation. And Hardaway and his coaching staff will be back in the gym this spring, recruiting the next wave of Tigers’ blue-chippers.

With shoe league ball starting up again this month, Hardaway — his first year on the college sidelines behind him — remains one of the most-watched coaches in the country.

“It’s the aura of Penny,” Evans said. “Guys like Calipari and Coach K, even Bill Self — they have that aura about them. And Penny is one of the few that you know when he’s in the gym. And what he’s done on the recruiting front and how there’s a promising upside to the program, I definitely do think that aura has remained.”

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