UK Recruiting

Memphis basketball star and former UK recruiting target James Wiseman ruled ineligible

James Wiseman in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)
James Wiseman in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht) AP

Memphis basketball star James Wiseman — at one point Kentucky’s top recruiting target — has been ruled ineligible by the NCAA, it was announced Friday night.

Wiseman, a freshman center at Memphis and the possible No. 1 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, was held out of the Tigers’ exhibition season but did play in the team’s season opener against South Carolina State on Tuesday night, recording 28 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in Memphis’ 97-64 victory.

The No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class, Wiseman was the first player from that group to land a scholarship offer from Kentucky, which appeared to be the clear leader in his recruitment until Memphis hired Penny Hardaway — Wiseman’s mentor and coach — to be their head coach before last season. Wiseman ultimately committed to the Tigers.

The 7-footer had moved from his hometown of Nashville to Memphis to play for Hardaway — who was already his Nike league coach — at Memphis East High School. Wiseman and Hardaway teamed up to win a state championship in Wiseman’s junior year, then Hardaway took the Memphis job.

Attorneys representing Wiseman told reporters Friday that the NCAA ruled that Hardaway helped Wiseman financially while in high school, and that led to his ineligibility ruling.

Memphis will appeal the ruling, and the school announced Friday that Wiseman would play in the Tigers’ game that night against Illinois-Chicago after a local court granted an “emergency temporary restraining order” to keep him on the court.

“The University is currently working with the NCAA staff to restore his playing status, and we are hopeful for a speedy resolution to the matter,” said a statement released by the school.

The statement said that Wiseman was initially declared eligible in May after a standard review by Memphis and the NCAA, but a deeper investigation by both parties revealed more information.

“After several months of interviews and, after a review of documentation, it was determined that in the summer of 2017, while James was a high school student and prospective student-athlete, Penny Hardaway provided $11,500 in moving expenses to assist the Wiseman family in their relocation to Memphis, unbeknownst to James,” said the statement.

ESPN ranks Wiseman as the No. 1 player for next year’s NBA Draft. He was the key player in Memphis’ 2019 recruiting class — the first full cycle under Hardaway’s leadership — and that group was ranked No. 1 nationally. Based largely on that recruiting class, Memphis started the season ranked No. 14 in the Associated Press poll.

“The University of Memphis is enjoying a tremendous period of positive momentum and success on multiple fronts including the excitement surrounding our men’s basketball program,” said Memphis athletics director Laird Veatch. “This matter is extremely unfortunate and frustrating at this special time in our history. We will continue to be cooperative, respectful and professional in our dealings with the NCAA, while availing ourselves of every resource in the best interests of our student-athletes, our coach, and our University. It is clear to me in my short time here that Memphians will stand up and fight, both for each other and for what is right, and I am proud to stand with them.”

The NCAA released a brief statement later Friday night, after Wiseman played in Memphis’ game.

“The University of Memphis was notified that James Wiseman is likely ineligible,” the statement said. “The university chose to play him and ultimately is responsible for ensuring its student-athletes are eligible to play.”

Ben Roberts covers UK basketball, football and other sports for the Lexington Herald-Leader and has specialized in UK basketball recruiting for the past several years. He also maintains the Next Cats recruiting blog, which features the latest news on the Wildcats’ recruiting efforts.
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