Eight months ago, the powers that be at Memphis made the unconventional decision to fire a head coach with a national championship to his name — one who has taken five different programs to the NCAA tournament — in order to make room for a man whose full body of work included two years as a high school assistant and one season as a high school head coach.
The move was the right one. That fact has never been more apparent than it was Tuesday afternoon.
During a ceremony at East High School in Memphis, James Wiseman — the No. 1 player in the class of 2019 according to most scouting services — announced that he would be staying home to play his college ball for the Memphis Tigers. The reveal was an expected one for anybody with a base ability to connect dots.
Wiseman transferred to East High from Nashville Ensworth in the summer of 2017 because he wanted to play for his AAU coach, Penny Hardaway. After two seasons as an assistant at East, Hardaway had recently been named the school’s new head coach. When Hardaway was named the new head coach at Memphis just months later, Wiseman’s college decision was essentially made with it.
Had Tubby Smith remained the head coach at Memphis, it seems like a certainty that Wiseman still would have put on a blue hat Tuesday afternoon. It just would have been Kentucky blue. Everyone associated with Memphis basketball, a group familiar with and not overly fond of John Calipari, was aware of this.
But this runs deeper than just James Wiseman.
The Memphis area is in the midst of a period where it has an influx of basketball talent. Smith lost out on the ability to land any of that talent when he cut ties with the talented Lawson brothers — now at Kansas — and their father, Keelon, a prominent figure in the Memphis basketball scene who had been on the Tiger coaching staff when Smith arrived.
Missing out on top local talent is only tolerable if your program is winning. Memphis was not winning. The Tigers haven’t played in any sort of postseason tournament in four years, the program’s longest such drought in four decades. As a result, attendance last season averaged only 4,583 fans over 19 regular-season home games, the lowest total for Memphis basketball in 35 years.
The University of Memphis, which shares the FedEx Forum with the Memphis Grizzlies, has a deal in place where the Grizzlies will pay them $800,000 if they average more than 10,000 fans per game, and a reduced payment if it averages somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 fans. As a result of their record low attendance, the school received zero dollars from the Grizzlies last season.
Fast-forward to Oct. 4. Before Wiseman’s commitment, before DJ Jeffries became the first player to decommit from Calipari at Kentucky and officially pledged his allegiance to Memphis basketball, before Hardaway had ever coached a college game, 18,000 Memphis fans packed the FedEx Forum for the Penny’s first “Memphis Madness.” That’s almost three times the number of fans who were in the house for the Tigers’ best-attended home game in 2017-18.
Hardaway’s first season on the job at Memphis is off to a decent enough start. The Tigers handled Tennessee Tech with ease in their season-opener, were competitive in a 9-point road loss to No. 22 LSU, and then avoided an upset by defeating Yale in double overtime. The team has a chance to be competitive in a down American Athletic Conference, but probably won’t be good enough to make it back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014. And that’s fine. That’s not what all this is about. At least not yet.
A total of 15,231 fans attended the season-opener against Tennessee Tech, the highest attendance number for a Memphis home game since the team’s regular season finale in 2015-16. Eleven days later, 14,656 people were in the house for the Yale game. That number will continue to rise as the season goes on and the names on the schedule become more familiar. A capacity crowd is expected when No. 5 Tennessee visits the Forum on Dec. 15.
Regardless of how this season plays out for Memphis, the excitement will still be around a year from now. Hardaway will return a solid chunk of his 2018-19 team, and then toss in a recruiting class that currently features Jeffries, a three-star big man out of East High School named Malcolm Dandridge, and now Wiseman. Hardaway’s instant success on the recruiting trail comes hand-in-hand with the promise that more of the same is on the way with the 2020, 2021 and 2022 classes.
For the first time since John Calipari and Derrick Rose were running up 38 wins a little over a decade ago, Memphis is one of the most talked about and nationally relevant programs in college basketball. A future Hall of Famer with 597 career-wins couldn’t make that happen, but a former player with one year of experience as a high school head coach could. The brass at Memphis thought this would be the case, which is why they sprung into action last March to make an unconventional move. Now they’re reaping the benefits.
History may wind up showing that Hardaway couldn’t coach a lick. But for Memphis, the potential risk was, and still is, worth the potential reward.