Penny Hardaway made his latest declaration abundantly clear Tuesday.
“I would say that Memphis basketball is back,” Hardaway said in front of a jam-packed room full of reporters, much more crowded than normal.
Hardaway’s latest statement is hard to deny, especially after he destroyed college basketball’s recruiting landscape over the last two weeks.
It was a whirlwind only on Hardaway’s radar a year ago, one assembled by four- and five-star recruits, that has thrown Memphis to the forefront of sport. Because for the first time in 11 years, the nation’s No.1 recruiting class doesn’t belong to Duke or Kentucky — it’s owned by the Tigers.
And to Hardaway, there’s no denying that feels good.
“I wanted this so badly, for so many reasons, and to be able to do that in such a short period of time I thank God for that opportunity,” Hardaway said.
“This is what the fans wanted. This is what the city needed. This is what the school needed. For us to be relevant around the country again — in a positive light — and to see Memphis everywhere, that’s a big deal.”
And no part of the Tigers is a bigger deal than their head coach — at least for now — who has become a character of interest on national talk shows like “Outside the Lines” and “Pardon The Interruption” over the last week.
In fact, the spotlight has grown so bright that even Hardaway, already global superstar, admitted he’s never seen anything like the flooding of commentary fired in the direction of his program and No. 1 recruiting class.
“This is way different. I mean, way different,” Hardaway said. “Because, when you start landing the kids that they didn’t think you could get — and it just kept coming week after week or day after day — that’s just major because it doesn’t happen every day.”
As Hardaway pointed out, the timing of it all added some extra drama to the equation. Over a two-week span in May, the Tigers acquired top 50 guards Lester Quinones and Boogie Ellis, one-and-done prospect Precious Achiuwa, and graduate transfer Rayjon Tucker.
Of course, all that came after going 4-for-4 on the local prospects he prioritized in the fall and winter, including James Wiseman, the nation’s top player.
The loaded roster has the Tigers coach “daydreaming in heaven” about all of the combinations he will be able to use on the floor next season.
“I think everybody thought it was going to be a show when I took over, and thought it was just going to be the local kids, and I was going to have a problem recruiting around the country along with my staff,” Hardaway said. “They definitely underestimated what we can do.”
But as the players started to pile up, so did the team’s expectations on both a national and local scale. As of Monday, Memphis was slotted at 12-1 to win the national championship next season by the Westgate SuperBook.
“That’s what we want,” Hardaway said. “You know, this is Memphis. We don’t bluff. We want all the smoke. We want everything. We want everything to be about Memphis. … If we want to win and hang our first banner in this building — or especially downtown at FedExForum — we are going to have to get talent, and with talent comes expectations and that’s what we want. That puts us in the conversation.”
If that’s an answer that makes college basketball elitists squirm, or draw even more criticism from the doubters should the season not go as planned, Hardaway doesn’t seem to care.
He’s not ready to claim victory over the critics before he delivers, and he doesn’t mind being in the middle of the conversation, anyway.
“I think that we’re getting talent, which gives you an opportunity to win and, like I said, we’re not shying away from that,” Hardaway said. “We want people to say that Memphis basketball is back, versus not mentioning Memphis at all.”