Penny vs. Cal? D.J. Jeffries shows why that may become college basketball's hottest rivalry

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Penny vs. Cal? D.J. Jeffries shows why that may become college basketball's hottest rivalry

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Penny vs. Cal? D.J. Jeffries shows why that may become college basketball's hottest rivalry

Corey Jeffries expected Kentucky fans to rip into his son on social media.

That’s the nature of the beast in recruiting when a player of D.J. Jeffries’ caliber announces he is no longer committed to a national powerhouse like Kentucky.

That’s exactly what D.J. Jeffries, the No. 19 player in the class of 2019 Chosen 25, becoming the first player to decommit from Kentucky since coach John Calipari arrived.

What perhaps Corey Jeffries did not completely understand, at least not until his son dominated sports talk radio in Memphis and message boards from here to the Bluegrass state the past 24 hours, is how much this would stoke the fire of college basketball’s newest rivalry.

Penny Hardaway vs. Calipari just got a lot juicier. And if Jeffries ends up picking Memphis, as many predict he will, watch out.

“I think it’s about to be fun,” Corey Jeffries said. “Cal had Duke going at him, but Cal doesn’t have a whole lot of competition on the recruiting trail. To see somebody get a leg up on him, it’s kind of interesting. We’re enjoying it, to be honest.”

How Penny Hardaway is changing Memphis basketball

This is the sort of off-court drama you can’t script, with layers only Memphis basketball fans who experienced the thrills and pain this basketball program produced over the past decade can fully appreciate.

The best basketball player Memphis ever produced becomes the head basketball coach at Memphis and immediately begins going after recruits tied to the Kentucky coach who took Memphis to its greatest heights less than a decade ago (and took recruits with him when he unceremoniously left).

Of course, we all saw this coming.

There was underlying tension the moment Hardaway was rumored to be the next coach at Memphis. He coached James Wiseman, the country’s top 2019 recruit, at Memphis East High School and had ties to several others thanks to his years on the grassroots basketball circuit.

Wiseman was considered a Kentucky lean. As soon as Hardaway’s hiring at Memphis became official, it suddenly became a two-school duel.

Nonetheless, everything seemed so cordial.

Hardaway said numerous times he considered Calipari a friend. Calipari then reached out to Hardaway and congratulated him on getting the job he once held at Memphis in March.

By April, the two were discussing playing one another, with Hardaway hoping for a home-and-home series and Calipari suggesting a neutral-site game in Nashville.

During college basketball’s July evaluation period, even as Kentucky and Memphis fans debated whether the Tigers had pulled into the lead for Wiseman, the two coaches were seen laughing and joking together on the sideline throughout Peach Jam.

A few days later, Jeffries said he was recruiting Wiseman to play with him at Kentucky and hadn’t communicated with Hardaway since April.

At one game, when teams featuring Wiseman and top recruit Vernon Carey faced one another, the Kentucky and Memphis staffs even sat next to one another.

Watching this unfold, one thought came to mind: “Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.”

Just ask Corey Jeffries.

When D.J. Jeffries committed to Kentucky in March, about a week before Hardaway’s introduction as head coach at Memphis, he got the sense Calipari had Hardaway in mind.

“D.J. was riding high off a state championship and they (Kentucky) wanted the commitment. I feel like they were pushing the commitment before Penny got the job,” Corey Jeffries said. “They said things like, ‘You know Penny’s about to get the job. Should we be worried?’”

Why D.J. Jeffries decommitted from Kentucky

The final impetus for D.J. Jeffries’ decision to re-open his recruitment came this past weekend, when he played his final summer basketball game in Las Vegas and no Kentucky coaches were in the stands.

“It was the last game of his summer career, so he was expecting somebody to be there,” Corey Jeffries said. “I think it kind of bothered him. That kind of shook him up a little bit.”

Corey Jeffries also clarified remarks he made earlier Tuesday during an interview on ESPN 92.9 FM in which he said Kentucky’s coaches were “unprofessional” when told of D.J. Jeffries’ decision.

Corey Jeffries noted, “it wasn’t Cal that took it so bad. It was the main recruiter (assistant coach Tony Barbee).”

Remember, this is still Kentucky. Losing Jeffries just means another high-profile recruit will soon be on the way.

But Memphis is not Kentucky. Not right now.

Where Penny Hardaway, Memphis stand with D.J. Jeffries

So Hardaway reached out Monday to Jeffries, as soon as the news of his decommitment broke, and the 6-foot-8 forward has already agreed to take official visits to Memphis and Mississippi State.

There’s a perception given how Memphis has positioned itself recruiting locally under Hardaway that it’s proof Tubby Smith was wrong when he intimated Memphis area prospects no longer wanted to come to Memphis.

Really, though, this is about the power of Penny.

You really think if Memphis hired anyone but Hardaway the Tigers would have gotten Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris? Or that they’d be in the position they’re in now with Wiseman and Jeffries?

These Memphis area recruits weren’t interested in playing for Tubby Smith. They are interested in playing for Penny Hardaway. It’s that simple.

And boy, does Memphis have options now.

In Jeffries, Trendon Watford, C.J. Walker and Matthew Hurt, Memphis is in the mix with four players ranked among the top 20 in the country by ESPN.

Get two, along with Wiseman and current commitment Malcolm Dandridge, and it would be bigger than any victory during Hardaway’s first season on the job. Get three and it could be the best recruiting haul in program history.

That it would come at the expense of Calipari might be the best part of all.

For more, visit the Memphis Commercial Appeal

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