MEMPHIS MADNESS: Hardaway, team excited for citywide hoops festivities

Players ready to prove themselves on the court: ‘It’s tournament or bust’

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This time last year, when Tubby Smith was patrolling the sidelines as head coach of the Memphis Tigers, there was no Media Day, despite the team having eight new players. There was little buzz about the team in general – and about the annual coming-out party called Memphis Madness in specific.

But figuratively speaking, Memphis has been on fire since homegrown Tiger/NBA star Penny Hardaway was announced as coach in March. And if Memphis Madness isn’t sold out already, it will be by the time the event starts tonight at 7 p.m. at FedExForum.

And that’s the frenzied setting that greeted Hardaway as more than 20 media members crowded into the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, where the University of Memphis basketball team practices. And although tip-off is still more than a week away, Hardaway knows how important it is to win Memphis Madness.

“We are putting on our first look into who we are as a team and for women’s basketball,” Hardaway said. “It is big for us.  If it is a success, then it makes a kid thinks differently about Memphis.”

The players from last year’s team like the additional media coverage, but most of all, they like feeling as though there’s a legitimate shot of making the NCAA Tournament next spring.

Returning players include Kyvon Davenport, Jeremiah Martin, Raynere Thornton, Kareem Brewton Jr., Mike Parks Jr. and Victor Enoh.  Among the newcomers expected to make an immediate impact are Tyler Harris, Alex Lomax, Antwann Jones, Isaiah Maurice and David Wingett. Other players on hand for media day were Ryan Boyce and Jayden Hardaway, Penny Hardaway’s son.

Per NCAA rules, the team has been playing pickup basketball with very little supervision by Coach Hardaway during the summer. The result? The players seem to have quickly formed a bond, including some trash talk.

Other than Hardaway, much of the buzz around the team has been around freshman Tyler Harris,  who starred at Cordova High School. Harris, who almost committed to Baylor before choosing Memphis to play for Hardaway, has impressed his new teammates with his scoring and his smack talk, and was named by his teammates as the biggest trash talker on the team.

The team is crowded with guards, and Harris, Lomax, Jones, Martin and Brewton will all be competing for minutes. But Hardaway has a history of getting his players buying into his system.

“We have five guys that can play the point guard position,” Hardaway said. “You want that depth at the guard position.  The guards are the ones that wins the game for you.”

Lomax, whom Hardaway has mentored and coached since middle school, said Hardaway keeps his players focused and locked in.

“Coach teaches an NBA style,” Lomax said. “He has always taught an NBA style.  He knows what it takes.  He has been through it.  He has done a great job of relaying the message to us.”

But beyond a pep rally, Memphis Madness is a recruiting tool. Among the highly-rated recruits expected to be on hand are D.J. Jeffries (Olive Branch); Trendon Watford (Mountain Brook); Boogie Ellis (Mission Bay); Jahmius Ramsey (Duncanville) and James Wiseman (Memphis East).  All are ranked in the Top 50 among prep prospects, and Wiseman has been ranked as the No. 1 prospect in the nation.

No entertainment has been confirmed by the university, but it is widely speculated that Justin Timberlake, Drake, Moneybagg Yo and others are among the artists to perform.

“There is nothing I can confirm,” Hardaway said with a smile.

Hardaway knows that after the Madness, his team will have to produce on the court to measure up to the hype around the program.

“We have to win,” Hardaway said. “A lot of people’s eyes are on us and they are telling us that they will be watching to see how we are going to do.  You will win them over by playing good basketball and winning games.”

What a difference a year makes. Last season, university officials were scrambling hoping to hit FedExForum attendance targets to avoid a payout to the Grizzlies.

This season all donations are up, season ticket sales are up and expectations are up.  If all goes well, the masses will once again sit around their televisions, laptops or other mobile devices in early March to see where the Tigers will be seeded in the NCAA tournament.

“It’s tournament or bust,” Thornton said. “None of us made it to the tournament last year. I feel like we had the potential to make it to the tournament because of the conference tournament we played in, but it is go big or go home this year.”