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Penny Hardaway built college basketball’s next freshmen superteam at Memphis

It’s Memphis, not Duke or Kentucky, that boasts the No. 1 recruiting class in college basketball.

Memphis paid nearly $10 million to fire Tubby Smith with three years remaining on his contract in the spring of 2018. The situation was just that dire. Smith had replaced Josh Pastner two years earlier to provide stability to a program that was starting to lose its shine. Instead, Tigers basketball hit rock bottom: attendance plummeted to all-time lows, the two best players on the team transferred out after Smith demoted their father from the coaching staff, and a streak of missing the NCAA tournament continued.

Blessed with a rabid fanbase and an NBA arena, Memphis has always felt like a sleeping giant since John Calipari departed for Kentucky in 2009. The program knew it needed to hit a home run with its next hire. The only man for the job was Penny Hardaway.

Hardaway had never held a coaching position above the high school level at any point in his career. He promised a team that would play fast, but his acumen for X’s and O’s largely remained a mystery. This could have been considered a major gamble on a number of levels, but Hardaway himself carried a unimpeachable confidence that his success was already preordained.

One year after his hire, no one is questioning Hardaway anymore. Suddenly, Memphis is the coolest school in college basketball.

The Tigers missed the NCAA tournament for the fourth straight year in Hardaway’s first season, but they did show team-wide improvement to finish 22-14 and make a jump in KenPom’s rankings from No. 161 to No. 59 overall under Penny. The real test was always going to be the 2019 recruiting class, and that is where Hardaway has fully delivered.

Memphis has the No. 1 recruiting class in the country

Not Duke. Not Kentucky. Not North Carolina, Arizona, or Kansas. Penny Hardaway just out-recruited Calipari, Mike Krzyzewski and everyone else in his first full year on the job.

For Hardaway, this was always the plan. He came to Memphis from Memphis East High School and the Team Penny grassroots program on Nike’s EYBL circuit with deep connections to many of the top athletes in the class of 2019 already in place. Hardaway showed his ability to close by beating out Kentucky for James Wiseman, ranked as the No. 1 overall player in the class by most services, after he helped Penny win a state championship at Memphis East.

But that isn’t the only blue chip recruit he’s added. What Hardaway has proved without a doubt is that he appeals to everyone, not just the recruits he had a previous relationship with.

Memphis’ recruiting class isn’t just talented. It’s also balanced.

Here’s a rundown of the players Hardaway has coming in next season:

  • James Wiseman, a 7-foot center, ranked as the No. 1 player in the country by 247 Sports
  • Precious Achiuwa, a 6’9 forward, ranked as the No. 14 player in the country by 247 Sports
  • Rejean “Boogie” Ellis, a 6’3 guard, ranked as the No. 37 player in the country by 247 Sports
  • DJ Jeffries, a 6’6 wing, ranked as the No. 48 player in the country by 247 Sports
  • Lester Quinones, a 6’5 guard, ranked as the No. 56 player in the country by 247 Sports
  • Malcolm Dandridge, a 68 center, ranked as the No. 98 player in the country by 247 Sports
  • Damion Baugh, a 6’4 guard, ranked as the No. 108 player in the country by 247 Sports

Hardaway also landed the top grad transfer on the market in Rayjon Tucker, a hyper-athletic 6’5 wing who starred at Little Rock the last two seasons but is also still considering keeping his name in the NBA draft.

Memphis’ recruiting class is deep. It’s loaded with top-100 talent. The pieces also fit so well together.

How Memphis basketball will play next season

Let’s assume Tucker bypasses the draft to play for Memphis. That would make the Tigers’ starting lineup look something like this:

PG: Boogie Ellis // Tyler Harris // Damion Baugh

SG: Rayjon Tucker // Alex Lomax // Jayden Hardaway

SF DJ Jeffries // Lester Quinones

PF Precious Achiuwa // Lance Thomas

C James Wiseman // Isaiah Maurice // Malcolm Dandridge

Ellis is more a combo guard playing point as a deadeye shooter who will need to refine his playmaking abilities. Tucker is a strong and powerful athlete who made 41.1 percent of his threes on nearly six attempts per game. Jeffries is a slasher who hit 47 percent of his threes on low volume in the EYBL. Quinones is a shooter. Achiuwa is a strong, athletic wing who will thrive in transition and provide supplemental big play ability on defense. Wiseman is a tremendous run and jump athlete with developing skill level who will be a lob threat and putback terror from day one.

This isn’t the case of Hardaway just getting the biggest, fastest athlete at every position. These players have skill, too. What some people might be forgetting is that this roster has depth and experience, too.

Harris will be a sophomore after solid freshman campaign as a 5’8 point guard who can get an offense going with his passing. Lomax played for Hardaway for years on the high school level as a 5’10 guard who can drive and kick. Lance Thomas is a 6’7 forward who transfers in from Louisville. Maurice is a 6’10 big who can rebound and block shots.

Expect Memphis to push the tempo, give their shooters the green light from three, and come at you with multiple ball handlers from the bench who can kick-start the offense. Not many teams in the country are blessed with that combination of raw talent and depth.

Memphis is college basketball’s most interesting team

How good will Memphis be? Expect this to be a preseason top-10 team in the polls. Maybe even one that starts in the top five when everything is settled with draft decisions.

The Tigers are the most talented team in the American Athletic Conference. Houston will again be very good, but lost some key pieces from last year’s breakout team. Cincinnati, Temple, and Wichita State are also formidable, but Penny’s Tigers won’t be scared of them.

Best of all? Hardaway’s class should provide the foundation for multiple years of success. Wiseman and Achiuwa are projected as one-and-done top-10 picks in the NBA draft (Memphis is the only program with two projected top-10 picks), but the other players should be multi-year athletes who give Memphis the ability to compete with the top of college basketball well into the future.

Penny has showed his long-standing relationships will lead to commitments, as it did with Wiseman, Jeffries, and Dandridge. He showed he can swoop in and pick up late commitments too, as he did with Achiuwa and Ellis when the latter decommitted from Duke. He proved that an offer from Memphis is a now a big deal.

The only thing left to prove for Penny? Turning wins on the recruiting trail into wins on the court. Don’t start doubting him now.