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Penny Hardaway Has a Loaded Roster – But Can He Win With It?


Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In case you hadn’t heard, Memphis picked up a commitment from a five-star basketball player this afternoon.

That’s not to be confused with the other five-star they pulled in earlier this week. Or the top-rated grad transfer they secured last Saturday. Or the four-star guard they got last Friday.

That’s right, Memphis is on a recruiting run for the ages right now, one which – at least for now – has landed them the No. 1 recruiting class in the country.

Overall, the Tigers have commitments from two McDonald’s All-Americans (James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa), six Top 100 players (Wiseman, Achiuwa, Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, D.J. Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge) and one of the top grad transfers on the market (Rayjon Tucker, who averaged 20 points at Little Rock last season). Add them in with a couple returning players, and it’s indisputable that Memphis will have one of the 3-4 most talented rosters in the country next season. I fully expect them to start the year ranked in everyone’s preseason Top 10.

To Penny Hardaway’s credit, he has done what he said he would do when he was hired a year ago. He has convinced the top players across high school basketball to come to Memphis. To his credit he hasn’t relied solely on the players he coached in high school or AAU, but has brought in the best players from across the country, ranging from New York (Quinones, Achiuwa) to California (Ellis) and everywhere in between.

Now to the more interesting part of the equation: Penny Hardaway has signed one of the most talented recruiting classes in the country. But will he be able to win with it? That right there might be the single most fascinating question in all of college basketball heading into the 2019-2020 season.

Now to be clear, I’m not as “Anti-Penny” as many others out there. I do understand why he frustrates opposing fan-bases with his confidence (some would say “cockiness”) and bravado on the recruiting trail. Him taking unprovoked cheap shots at Rick Barnes last season certainly didn’t help things.

At the same time, I never believed the notion that he was some AAU hotshot who was destined to be a failure as a college head coach. This is a guy who played basketball the highest level, and brought in a staff full of sharp, smart basketball minds, which includes a former NBA Coach of the Year in Sam Mitchell. That staff, including Penny, knows basketball.

On top of their X’s and O’s prowess, Penny also entered college basketball with an understanding of how the AAU and recruiting game work as well. Unlike other guys who came from the NBA (Patrick Ewing, Chris Mullin, Avery Johnson) he wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by the recruiting aspect of coaching college basketball.

Again, I liked the Penny hire last year, and for the most part I thought he did pretty good in year 1 at Memphis. He inherited a mostly “bleh” roster and led them to a 22-14 overall record and a fifth-place finish in the AAC, where all four of the teams who finished ahead of him (Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and Temple) made the NCAA Tournament. His team got better as the season wore on, winning five of its final six regular season games and beat a couple teams that ended up making the NCAA Tournament.

For the most part I thought Penny actually overachieved in Year 1. And I thought his ability to get the most out of a below-average roster was a positive sign heading into Year 2 at the school.

Still, for as good as he was in Year 1, he is in store for something completely different heading into next season. Understand, there is a big difference between taking a rag-tag group of guys and getting them to overachieve like he did this season, as opposed to what he will face next season, with a roster full of big-time recruits, with NBA dreams and the expectations and egos that come along with it.

Ultimately that will be the story of the 2019-2020 Memphis Tigers: Can Penny keep everyone happy?

It will be fascinating to watch, and something that is impossible to know the answer to. Penny isn’t John Calipari or Coach K, and hasn’t been juggling talented rosters for decades at a time. Quite the opposite. He’s a coach who has never been on this stage, with this pressure and this level of expectations before. Even more, he is doing it with a lot of kids (and their families) who he has known for years, and who at times he coached in the high school or AAU levels. What will happen when he has to tell a kid (or a mom or dad) who he has known for a decade that they simply aren’t good enough? Or what happens when he has to tell a Top 50 recruit that he is headed to the bench?

These are the things that no one has an answer to right now.

And at the sake of using the rest of the article to break down Memphis’ depth chart, here are some of the issues I believe could pop up next year.

  • He has, at the very least four players who expect to use Memphis as a one-season springboard to the NBA next season. And honestly that number might be conservative. They are James Wiseman, Precious Achiuwa, Rayjon Tucker and Boogie Ellis. Can he keep all four happy, especially the first three, if they aren’t the focal point of the offense?
  • Ellis committed to Memphis in large part to prove to the NBA that he can play point guard and run an offense. This despite the fact that he’s really more of a scoring/combo guard than he is a true point. Can he run an offense and keep others happy, while also getting his own offense?
  • D.J. Jeffries decommitted from Kentucky, because he wasn’t happy that they continued to recruit players at his position even after he committed. Well guess what? Achiuwa plays the same position, is a better player and will almost certainly start over him. How will that fly with Jeffries?
  • Tyler Harris (Memphis’ leading returning scorer) and Alex Lomax (a former Top 150 recruit) are both Memphis kids who played for Penny in high school. I’m guessing that both assumed they were headed for bigger roles next season. What happens when they get bumped down the depth chart by the newcomers? Especially since they are both from Memphis, with ties to Penny dating back to their AAU days? How will that fly with their families, and in the community?
  • How do Lester Quinones (a Top 50 recruit) and Rayjon Tucker (a grad transfer) co-exist, when they’re basically the same player? Tucker has declared for the draft and will could potentially stay in. But if he doesn’t, can they co-exist?

Add it up and you have a lot of kids, with a lot of expectations and it will be fascinating to see if Penny is able to keep them all happy.

In the end, maybe Hardaway really is that good of a coach, and maybe he figures out a way to maximize all those players and allows Memphis to reach its potential. Maybe Memphis will live up to that preseason Top 10 ranking and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

But the reality is that this is basketball. We just have too much of a track record (at all levels) that when you have one ball, and that many superstars, it’s hard to keep everybody happy.

Will it work? Won’t it?

This may be the single most fascinating question in college basketball entering the 2019-2020 season.

Article written by Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres is covering football and basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook or e-mail at [email protected] He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”

26 responses to “Penny Hardaway Has a Loaded Roster – But Can He Win With It?”

  1. KYFAN4LYFE

    I’m going to go with no….and I won’t be shocked if they don’t even make the tourney.

    1. TonyMontana

      I won’t be shocked if they go undefeated in the AAC and enter the tournament ranked #1 overall. Imagine if we were playing in the AAC. They’re gonna destroy teams. But like the article says, it’s going to be very interesting to see how Penny juggles everything.

    2. trumpetguy

      Platoon?

  2. 4everUKblue

    Just got off the phone with Tom Jenkins and he said Jaden McDaniels is committing to Memphis any minute now. Sorry Johnson.reports, I know he usually talks to you exclusively.

  3. Jud

    Who’s the point guard?
    They look thin at the 1 and 2.

  4. Bruce Dickinson

    If he does a good coaching job, he will move on to a bigger school.

    1. Han

      Nah, he wants to go to the NBA, I believe.

    2. nocode96

      He’s even publicly stated that his next step is to coach NBA and that’s what he’s using Memphis as a springboard for.

  5. 4everUKblue

    He’s about to find out how hard it is to get a team of freshmen to play together, something Cal is the best at.

  6. chrislarkey

    Great job Penny

    I hope you lose every game and Memphis goes on probation for you and your thug assistant

    1. nocode96

      This^^^this right here ought to be embarrassing to every UK fan. The epitome of why other universities, and even many of our own fans, can’t stand UK fans. Dumbest comment I’ve ever seen.

    2. chrislarkey

      I am not for other schools!

      I have only 1 team I am for, Ky.

      I hope every team fails and I don’t care about other teams, I don’t care if it embarrasses you or not. I don’t have to be for anyone else.

    3. chrislarkey

      And another thing, I do not care if other fans or schools hate us, because they already do. Out of jealousy.

    4. Skooms

      Why should it be embarrassing? Swap Penny out for Pitino while at UofL and you’re probably agreeing with that statement. I’m definitely NOT pulling for Penny to win. I had no issues with him until he started talking mad crap about Barnes. Sorry, but that was bush league crap.

    5. Skooms

      Also, please remember your comment Nocode, because rest assured that Penny will start running his mouth about Cal and UK after this recruiting class. I’m guessing you’ll continue knocking on UK fans that have issues with that though huh?

    6. nocode96

      A) y’all are stressing an unproven coach like he’s on UK’s level. He ain’t. Y’all are both worked up over the fact he got kids we wanted, but didn’t. You’re adults I assume, so act like it.
      B) do tell what makes his assistant a “thug”
      C) larkey, I’ve seen you bash Cal and the program on this very site, so you get to pick and choose your fandom when it’s convenient for you? And skins, pretty sure you’ve shlt on Cal and our players quite a bit too.
      D) of course penny will take a shot at Cal. He already has. That’s what happens when you’re the pinnacle of the sport, quit acting like other programs should be licking our boots.

      I’m the biggest UK and Cal homer on this site, even my detractors will tell you that. However, fans like y’all who automatically jump to name calling, accusations of illegal activity to lure recruits, and wishing a group of kids such ill will is just sour grapes and it is EXACTLY what makes people like you both embarrassments.

    7. chrislarkey

      C. Comment

      Yes I did bash what I thought was lack of heart and fortitude. I was wrong and don’t care to admit it and it was in heat of NCAA tournament and everyone gets ignorant at that time.

      And I still hate every team other than UK

    8. chrislarkey

      B.

      Mike Miller is the thug I refer to.

    9. Skooms

      Nocode, you need to do some research bud, Ive NEVER bashed on Cal or a single UK player on this site. Also, I’ve NEVER once bashed on a Memphis player. That’s not acting like everyone should “lick” Cal’s boots as you put it. It’s called “being classy”, which Penny is most certainly NOT. Name me one time since being at UK, Cal has ran his mouth about another program and coach the way Penny has against Barnes.

    10. Skooms

      Not knowing what you’re talking about is EXACTLY why fans like YOU should be embarrassed Nocode.

    11. 4everUKblue

      Still waiting for chrislarkey to post even one intelligent comment and that’s all I have to say about that.

    12. chrislarkey

      Here is an intelligent comment for you

      Penny has acquired a great team and IMO can coach and has some good coaches with him. He will make a run this year with this team and wipe out his conference. I think his next step will be coach in the NBA where the Orlando Magic should give him a shot because no one else succeeds there either. I hate he is getting all these great recruits and UK is missing out on some of them. If he does great at Memphis and somewhat decent in the NBA and gets fired because the NBA is brutal on coaches, then who is to say he won’t be at UK after Coach Cal leaves.

  7. FlatTopsAndBlockedShots

    He had better rosters in AAU and they were very average. Now against higher level competition it doesn’t look like it’ll be much better

  8. albyjimc2

    They’ll go undefeated in that weak ass conference.

    1. KYFAN4LYFE

      Correction: They BETTER go undefeated in that weak ass conference. But they won’t, just like Puke failed miserably with their group of paid All-Stars.

  9. familyRock

    Wow! These are some very negative, unsubstantiated comments. There seems to be only one person commenting with common courtesy. From everything I’ve heard, Penny Hardaway is excellent connecting with the kids. He has a reputation of being a really good guy who sincerely wants to help kids. Just because he got some kids that KU wanted does not make him a bad guy.