For several years, the upcoming season of Tiger Basketball hasn’t held much anticipation for its fans. But with the hiring of rookie Head Coach Penny Hardaway and the subsequent addition of talent, fans are clamoring for the start of the season.
Players can’t wait either. The Tigers have been holding summer workouts at their on-campus facility and the process of meshing the new arrivals with the returning players has begun. According to NCAA rules, Hardaway can only host “voluntary athletically related activities” with his team until the school year starts in August. So technically, it’s not “practice.”
But that small detail doesn’t negate the intensity of the workouts or the chemistry Hardaway and his coaching staff are working to build. Teams usually are allowed to play organized basketball and travel abroad in the summer. Instead, Hardaway wanted his team to stay in Memphis and so he could teach them his system.
“The new guys are showing that they belong here,” said senior guard Jeremiah Martin, who was sidelined by an injury last Spring. “They have been playing hard and competing. The young guys and the older guys have been going at it hard every day.”
Martin also spoke about his return next season: “I feel good. After what happened last year. It has been a journey, but I am blessed that I had successful surgery and rehab. I am just anxious to get back on the court.”
Martin was not able to apply any pressure to his injured leg has been using a scooter to get around. As a part of his recovery, he’s had to find other ways to keep his skills up, so he’s been practicing set shots that don’t require him to jump.
Also returning is Kareem Brewton Jr., who stepped up last season in Martin’s absence. He notices a difference in the tone of Hardaway’s workouts too.
“This is more energy,” said Brewton, a senior guard. “Everyone is not lackadaisical. You have to bring it each and every day. It has been so competitive.”
Just last week, former NBA Head Coach Sam Mitchell joined Hardaway’s staff, which also includes former Memphis Grizzlies star Mike Miller. Players have noticed a difference in how they are being coached.
“I can tell it is different, because the way the coaches teach is way different,” said returning senior Kyvon Davenport. “I have only been in Division I for one year, but I played in (junior college). The drills are different and principles that he wants are different. He knows the experience and what it takes to get to the pros.”
Added Brewton: “All of our coaches have been players before. They say don’t look at (their relationship) as coach-to-player, but as player-to-player. We talk to them like we’d talk to everyone else, but at the same time we respect them.”
Davenport considered joining former head coach Tubby Smith, now at High Point University. But after discussions with Hardaway he decided to stay at Memphis.
“He likes what I did (last season) and said he could make be better as a player,” Davenport said. “He told me what I needed to work on. He wants me to lead and show the right way. ”
Shortly after accepting the job, Hardaway recruited Memphis prep stars Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris — both guards, like Brewton. Lomax was released from Wichita State so he could play for Hardaway, his former East High School coach. And it was a forgone conclusion that Harris would play for Baylor. All that changed when Hardaway was hired.
“It was a big change in my recruitment when the new coaching staff came,” Harris said. “So far everything has been great.”
“A year ago, a lot of things were different,” Lomax said. “Coach Tubby was here doing a great job with the team. Coach Penny was still in high school and I was in a great situation with Wichita State.
“But once (Coach Penny) took the job, everything changed. The atmosphere changed,” he continued. “My heart changed and I don’t regret (coming to U of M) at all.”
Davenport wants to become more consistent next season. And he also believes that once he and his teammates learn how to play together, they will be a force in the AAC.
“This year, we are so close. The chemistry on the court is great and we just need to learn everybody’s game,” he said. “Once we click 100 percent, we are going to be unstoppable.”