For an entire generation of basketball fans, Penny Hardaway represented both a new style of electric play and a career that never reached its potential thanks to situations outside of the player’s control. Fortunately for Memphis Tigers fans, a similar situation doesn’t await his coaching career.
Bluntly put: If Hardaway’s appeal is to fail at Memphis, it won’t be because of circumstances outside of his purview. Instead, it will be the direct result of his shortcomings as a collegiate coach. It’s actually good news for Tigers fans, as the Penny Hardaway brand has endured, leading to earnest early success on the recruiting trail.
Take a dismissive gander at the 5-5 start to his coaching career, spit at it with disdain, then hurl the record directly in the trash. It’s unimportant. Although rabid fanbases demand immediate gratification, year-one of the Hardaway era was almost always going to be a wash. It’s more about him learning how to grow as a tactician than whatever overall record he posts at season’s end.
There’s also the recruiting. Always, forever, with great love and admiration, there’s the recruiting. The lifeblood of any quality program.
As Hardaway learns on the job, he’s already mastered the art of luring top-tier prospects to campus. Astute recruiting trail followers might have noticed the hyperbolic comparisons to John Calipari over the offseason, and while those who dabbled in overstatements played with small sample size theater, there’s some merit to the idea.
Hardaway’s grassroots connections are the stuff of legend. Outside of being the human embodiment of an entire city, which is insanely important to the Memphis Tigers community (ask Tubby Smith and Josh Pastner), his ability to connect with teenagers is the primary reason he landed the job.
Since tasked with leading Memphis back to national relevance, Hardaway hasn’t disappointed. Sure, the 2018-19 campaign is off to a sluggish start, however, he already has the country’s 13th ranked 2019 recruiting class coming to play in the American Athletic Conference.
A five-star in James Wiseman joins four-star DJ Jeffries next fall in what will be the program’s first sincere attempt at reclaiming non-Memphis folks’ attention.
For those jaded by witnessing the Kentucky Wildcats, Duke Blue Devils and so on snag five-star after five-star, dabbling with a few higher leveled four-star talents, on the regular, this expedited growth on the recruiting trail is best understood within the context of the league Hardaway operates.
At the time of this writing, no AAC program outside of Memphis has a five-star prospect committed to their school. The second highest ranked 2019 class in the league belongs to the Connecticut Huskies, a storied program that’s so far managed to attract three four-star caliber players.
Following Memphis at one and UConn at two, there’s a considerable drop in incoming talent to the conference, as the Wichita State Shockers might have plateaued a bit, only (so far) bringing in one four-star and two three-stars for 2019 (this is all according to 24Sports).
Relevant aside: Not shocking, given the name-brand programs they coach, it can easily be argued the future of the AAC rests in the hands of Penny Hardaway and Dan Hurley.
Continuing on Hardaway’s brilliance with a new iteration of recruiting, one the NCAA is destined to muck up, he realizes what’s actually important. It isn’t only about going to high school gyms, AAU circuits, scheduling a brutal docket (Memphis does have the 37th ranked SoS right now) and the traditional routes dominated by those who have built their programs into blue-bloods… it’s about the power of television.
“TV has the power,” Penny Hardaway said to the Commercial Appeal. “They can call on other schools and say, ‘Hey, we want this matchup.’ Most teams are not going to turn down a nationally-televised game. We are definitely not because we want it for our fans, our city, our school and for our players. We want the competition.”
If the Memphis Tigers were to be your figurative friend at a pub who got in a brawl s/he can’t handle alone, there’s no reason to fret, as backup is on its way in haste — that backup being Penny Hadaway and his 2019 recruiting class. Unfortunately for the rest of the AAC, they’ll likely be operating on the wrong end of a pool stick.
Plenty of reasonable people can agree to be tempered, even measured, when viewing Memphis this season and beyond. And yet, due to the nature of fandom becoming increasingly fickle year-after-year, it remains important to note patience is a virtue easily practiced with promising success illuminating on the horizon.
For the Memphis Tigers, led by Penny Hardaway, it’s even better, as the aforementioned patience doesn’t need to be preached for long. He appears to be grasping everything the sport has thrown at him, all while excelling in every area one needs to when wanting to quickly turn a program into a world-beater.
Not just a fine program. Not merely a good one. A world-beater.
What’s that about tempering expectations again?
Joseph Nardone has covered college basketball for nearly a decade for various outlets in a variety of ways. You can follow him on Twitter @JosephNardone.
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