The road to what many envision as a return to the NCAA Tournament and a subsequent climb to the top of the college-basketball mountain got underway with the first official practice by the University of Memphis basketball team on Tuesday (Sept. 29).
“It was great. They have been together for a minute,” said head coach Penny Hardaway. “They are buying into the things that we are selling. We know where we want to be. That is be in the NCAA tournament. That is the focus.”
Memphis’ talent level has much of Tiger Nation seriously thinking that this season’s team can go one step further than the 2008 team and actually win the NCAA championship game.
Two five-star arrivals – Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren – are generating much of the buzz. They are the nucleus of a high-profile recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the country.
For Hardaway, it’s the second time in three seasons that his Tigers have started the season with the top-ranked class of recruits.
“That (previous) number one class we had a couple of years ago was pretty good with Precious (Achiuwa), James Wiseman, Boogie Ellis, Damian Baugh and Lester Quinones,” said Hardaway.
After noting that Duren and Bates were ranked one and two respectfully in their classes, Hardaway said, “Josh Midnot is a person many people may not know. John Cambell and Sam Onu are really good team players with bright futures and … everyone knows Johnathan (Lawson) because he is local.”
One of the lingering questions for many fans is who is going to play point guard. Hardaway alluded to that when he said that Bates has been playing point guard and that Bates has been playing better after locking in on the need for him to be more of a facilitator than a scorer.
Landers Nolley III, De’Andre Williams and Lester Quinones form the returning core of the Memphis team that won the NIT Championship last season. The trio is back for a run at a NCAA championship.
Hardaway noticeably – and understandably – is not talking championship; just making the NCAA tournament, which the Tigers have not in the last eight years. In addition to the NIT title, Memphis has won at least 20 games in each of Hardaway’s seasons as the head coach.
The Memphis Rebounders, who staged a reception at the Laurie Walton Center, were allowed to watch the final minutes of a practice that ended with a well-timed, at-the-buzzer dunk by Duren.
The general public can see the men’s and women’s team on October 13 at the FedExForum during this year’s version of Memphis Madness, which – in addition to treating fans – is another tool Hardaway uses to impress future recruits. Tickets are on sale now.
The regular season schedule still has not been released.
And, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, FedExForum officials plan to require either proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter any event held at the facility.
Meanwhile, Hardaway and his coaching staff have prioritized getting the most out of practice.
“Like coach (Larry Brown) always says, the talent don’t mean anything; you have to be able to play together. It’s great having that talent, but we have to find a way to make it mesh. That is what practice is for.”