With the fate of James Wiseman now decided, the Memphis Tigers welcomed the University of Arkansas-Little Rock to FedExForum on Wednesday, Nov. 20. Lance Thomas got the start as center while Wiseman watched. But the Tigers got the win, 68-58. Photo: Warren Roseborough)

My first reaction to learning that the NCAA will restore James Wiseman’s eligibility after a 12-game suspension: “OUCH!”

My second reaction? “Whew.”

Lee Eric Smith

If that reminds you of getting a shot at the doctor’s office, that feels about right. The dread of waiting for something painful followed by the knowledge that as awful as taking your medicine was, it could have been MUCH worse.

The NCAA issued its ruling Wednesday (Nov. 20), just hours before the Tigers tipped-off against the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. In total, Wiseman will sit for 12 games – last Saturday’s win over Alcorn State plus an additional 11 games that will keep the star sidelined until Jan. 12.

“According to the facts of the case submitted on November 14 and agreed upon by the school, Wiseman’s mother received $11,500 from Memphis booster Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, before Memphis employed him as its head men’s basketball coach,” said a statement at NCAA.org.

“The benefit was impermissible because of Hardaway’s status as a Memphis booster. Hardaway had made donations to the school in the past, including $1 million to help build the Penny Hardaway Athletic Hall of Fame at the school,” the statement continued.

“Boosters cannot provide financial assistance to prospective student-athletes, their family members or friends unless that assistance is generally available to other members of the student body and is not given based on athletics ability.”

It boiled over two weeks ago, when Wiseman got an injunction to temporarily allow him to play while his eligibility was sorted out. However, Hardaway, with the blessing of school brass, ignored the NCAA and played Wiseman in three games anyway. Last week, Wiseman withdrew his suit, clearing the way for the NCAA decision, which explicitly dinged Wiseman not just for the moving expenses but for the school’s defiance – nine games for the infraction and three for the games played while ineligible.

The penalty was “based on recruiting inducements (Wiseman’s) family received before he enrolled at Memphis and for competing in three games while ineligible,” read a statement at NCAA.org.  Wiseman must also donate $11,500 – an amount equal to the moving expenses – to a charity of his choice. The University of Memphis plans to appeal the decision.

“Based on case precedent, the circumstances of this case and other mitigating factors, the university will immediately appeal this decision,” the University said in a statement. “We expect a more fair and equitable resolution, and we will exhaust all avenues on James’ behalf.”

So, who are the winners and losers here? Let’s go down the list:

James Wiseman. On one hand, you feel sad for a kid who simply wants to play college ball and will now have to wait six more weeks. On the other hand, how much did Wiseman really have to lose? He’s still going to be a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. He’s still going to make millions. And those things were likely to happen regardless of how long the suspension was. Still, as disappointing as it is, at least he knows the outcome and he’ll get to play this season. WINNER.

Tiger Basketball. No matter how many fans wanted the Tigers to continue to play Wiseman to spite the NCAA, the UofM was wise enough to know they would never win that battle. They could have slow-walked the process, leaving Memphis in limbo. They could have handed down a tournament ban for this season and beyond. The list goes on. Point is, given how bad it could have been, 12 games has to count as a win. WINNER.

Wiseman’s Teammates. Hardaway said on Nov. 19 that Wiseman is still practicing with the team, though Isaiah Maurice and Lance Thomas will soak up the in-game minutes as Hardaway wants to continue to play Precious Achiuwa at power forward instead of center.

“Obviously, other guys will get more minutes. They’ll have an opportunity to step up,” Hardaway said before the NCAA decision. “What’s lost in all this is James not playing. But the silver lining is that other guys get more experience.”

The Tigers are still a VERY good team without Wiseman, and there will be time to re-integrate him back into a more seasoned lineup before tournament time. That’s a win all by itself. WINNERS.

Penny Hardaway. Hardaway certainly won hometown hero points with fans for standing up to the NCAA. And Achiuwa even praised his coach for standing with Wiseman. There may be no explicit NCAA penalty, but the facts remain: Wittingly or not, Hardaway skirted NCAA rules (TSSAA rules too) to get Wiseman to Memphis and eventually to the Tigers. He’s golden in Memphis and maybe that’s all that matters. But sober eyes know it’s not a good look. LOSER.

Tiger fans. We will always wonder what could have been with this team – what their record (and possibly their tournament seeding) would be with a full season of Wiseman. And maybe, if there is a magical run in March with Wiseman in the lineup, it won’t matter. But for now, Tiger fans will miss seeing a special talent play in their school colors until Jan. 12. LOSERS.

NCAA. Other than an immediate restoration of Wiseman’s eligibility, there was no way for the NCAA to come out of this looking good.  LOSERS.

Tigers fans will feel like the punishment didn’t fit the crime, but in reality, the Memphis Tigers survived a close call with the NCAA.

Besides, when Wiseman takes the court again against the University of South Florida in January, we won’t spend much time looking back at this drama – we’ll be looking ahead to see what his return means for The Big Dance, and whether the Tigers can still make a championship run.

And I’m going to count that as a win.