All season, many Tigers fans have been saying, “Wait til’ next year!” After years of irrelevance, the Memphis basketball program has returned to the forefront of the diehard Tigers fan and the casual fan who may only tune in during March.
The 2018-19 team had one goal this season: “Tournament or Bust.” That may have been a realistic goal for the team to start the season, but even hopeful fans were not actually expecting the team to make the NCAA Tournament.
The Tigers finished the season 22-14 and made an appearance in the NIT – the first first time Memphis has made a postseason appearance in five years. And so if the professor was Head Coach Penny Hardaway, what grade would he give his team.
“I would give us a B,” Hardaway said Tuesday in his postseason presser. “We have a new system, coaching staff, joining two groups together . . . It took us a while to get to where we wanted to get to, but it was fun getting there.”
And with a year of coaching under his belt — and a crop of players who now know how he coaches and what he wants to do — he’s predicting dramatic growth going into next season.
“Now I can lay the foundation and get the culture that I need to get every year to get better and better,” Hardaway said. “Guys from this year know what’s going to happen next year. So when (new players) come in, these (veterans) will be able to say, ‘This is who we are, this exactly what we’re going to do.’ We’re going to be ahead of the game.”
Hardaway said the best times of his first year were when he was able to sign a recruit he really wanted. That included signing rising sophomores Tyler Harris and Alex Lomax as well as an incoming class that includes James Wiseman, D.J. Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge.
The Tigers did not put their gains on playing lesser teams. The team is currently ranked No. 57 on www.kenpom.com. The ranking service for college basketball. Last year, the team ended ranked 116 in the ranking. That is one of the reasons they were not invited to a postseason tournament in Tubby Smith’s final season last March.
The Tigers will have a top-10 recruiting class next season. Wiseman is the top-rated prospect in the class. In addition to former East teammate Dandridge and Olive Branch star Jeffiries, Hardaway’s freshmen also will include Tennessee Prep star Damian Baugh. And Hardaway is not done recruiting yet.
“The more talent that you get, the fans are like, ‘We’re going to better and better each year,” Hardaway said. “My expectations are always going to be high. The chemistry of being together, we can accomplish a lot of things.”
Mathew Hurt, a five-star recruit from Rochester, Minn., is expected to visit the UofM campus this weekend. Precious Achiuwa, Lester Quinones and Trendon Watford all are playing in the McDonalds All-American game this week in Atlanta. And Wiseman has been continuously recruiting all of these players to join him in Memphis.
“That’s great!” Hardaway said with a chuckle. “That’s good for us. Our players who are coming here are out there spreading the word . . . and media is talking about Memphis. That’s always good. I mean, you have the No. 1 player in the country and he’s out telling other guys this is the place where they need to be . . . I think that’s awesome.”
Watford is expected to announce his decision during the Jordan Brand game in Las Vegas on April 19. Wiseman, who will also play in that game, will be in Watford’s ear until his announcement.
The team only has one scholarship available. However, the Tigers coaching staff don’t know which incumbent Tigers will transfer of just leave the team – if any. Hardaway said he will have exit interviews with his team in the next two weeks.
Poor outside shooting dogged the team all season. Hardaway feels that he has good shooting already on his bench with Jayden Hardaway, Ryan Boyce and David Wingett. There is also the option to pursue either the senior transfer or go the junior college route.
Hardaway said he wants more home games next season. And he’s also still pursuing matchups with elite programs like Georgetown and Kentucky.
“We’re going to do what we can to get out there in some big tournaments and play against some of these big teams, but we also want a lot of home games,” Hardaway said. “That’s why we got out of the Myrtle Beach one – we wanted more home games along with the game in Brooklyn.”
The schedule should be finalized by either late July or early August. ESPN and CBS usually wait until then to formalize their national television schedules.