From the moment he became the Memphis men’s basketball coach, Penny Hardaway embraced, and even encouraged, the expectation that the Tigers should soon be competing in all facets of the game with the nation’s elite programs again.
But as much as he accomplished since being hired, the coming weeks could very well determine the effectiveness of Hardaway’s initial efforts to keep that promise.
The first of three five-day evaluation periods this month begin Wednesday evening, and they will serve as a showcase for Hardaway to prove he can out-maneuver college basketball’s blue bloods on the recruiting trail.
Memphis hasn’t landed a five-star recruit since Austin Nichols in 2013, and its new coach is intent on ending that streak this year.
The Tigers and their new-look staff full of professional pedigrees are in contention to snag several players ranked among the top-20 2019 prospects in the country.
But to do so they must beat out schools such as Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, a challenge Hardaway acknowledged when he spoke with reporters Tuesday before heading to Nike’s prestigious Peach Jam tournament in North Augusta, S.C.
“The other teams have a history of putting more guys in the league over the last five, ten years or whatever, so it’s more appealing to go to those schools,” Hardaway said. “But hopefully they’ll respect what we can do as a staff for them and their games.”
This is the crux of the pitch Hardaway has been doling out to top-end recruits since taking over the program in April. There’s no better way to prepare for the NBA than to play for former NBA players.
“We can take any kid, especially a kid with a five-star talent, and take them to the next level because we’re teachers,” he reiterated Tuesday.
And this message appears to be taking.
After reeling in a top-30 2018 recruiting class on the fly, Memphis has a legitimate opportunity at landing coveted five-star prospects such as James Wiseman of East High School, Minnesota-based forward Matthew Hurt of Minnesota and forward Trendon Watford from Birmingham, Ala.
The potential commitments of Wiseman and Watford, in particular, have been the subject of growing speculation among Memphis fans.
Watford, ranked No. 10 in the country by 247Sports, recently took an unofficial visit to Memphis and a photo of his older brother, former Indiana star Christian Watford, working out at the Memphis practice facility surfaced before he joined the Memphis Grizzlies summer league roster this month.
Alabama, Indiana and Kansas, among others, are also considered top contenders for Trendon Watford at the moment.
Wiseman, the No. 1 recruit in the country according to multiple national recruiting outlets, played for Hardaway at Memphis East this past winter and his high school teammates, Alex Lomax and Ryan Boyce, now play for the Tigers.
Forward Malcolm Dandridge, the Tigers’ lone 2019 commitment, also plays alongside Wiseman at East and on Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League with the Bluff City Legends, which was formerly known as Team Penny.
Kentucky coach John Calipari is also in hot pursuit of Wiseman, but Hardaway’s previous ties are intriguing to national recruiting observers.
“They’ve gotten some really good players already, but if you could get a signature guy like that, I think it changes the outlook,” said Evan Daniels, the national recruiting director for 247Sports. “Getting a commitment like that would go a long way.”
After Hardaway’s announcement Tuesday that Boyce will be a walk-on this season and come on scholarship for the 2019-20 campaign, Memphis currently has just two available scholarships left for its 2019 class.
But Hardaway indicated he’s expecting to take multiple players during this recruiting cycle, and he’s hoping to make an early splash to create momentum.
“If you get one, then kids recruit other kids,” Hardaway said. “If you get one, it can definitely be an avalanche of kids that say we want to go there as well.”
Lomax and fellow 2018 signee Tyler Harris are helping out in this endeavor.
Harris told The Commercial Appeal last month that he spent a considerable amount of time pitching the Tigers to top-75 recruit Jaykwon Walton, who plays for Memphis-based AAU program Team Thad like Harris did, during a recent unofficial campus visit.
Lomax, meanwhile, noted that he knows most of the 2019 players Hardaway and his staff are chasing.
“I’m recruiting hard,” Lomax said. “I’m talking to guys every day.”
Hardaway emphasized once again Tuesday that he isn’t only pursuing five-star prospects. Though programs like Duke and Kentucky have loaded up on one-and-done recruits with varying degrees of success over the past decade, he doesn’t want to overload the roster with egos to manage. Hardaway said he values chemistry over talent in some cases.
But it’s the elite talent he could bring in that has all of college basketball buzzing about what Memphis might do over the next month and beyond. It’s the sort of intrigue that had gone missing in recent offseasons.
“They’ve put themselves in position with a couple elite players to be right there in the mix and I think there’s a high probability they’re going to get one of them,” Daniels said. “From a recruiting standpoint, they’ve done all the right things and they’ve put themselves in the battle. Now they’ve just got to close the deal.”