You Have No Choice But to Become Obsessed with Memphis Tigers Basketball, Right Now

Penny's team is ludicrously stacked

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Deep in the football-obsessed South, Memphis is a basketball town at its heart. When Memphis University fields a competitive basketball team, the town is juiced. The last time that Memphis was in the national conversation, it was because the 2007-2008 Memphis team went 38-2, buoyed by breakout performances from freshman guard Derrick Rose. Their second loss of the season was in the national title game, in overtime. They were really, really good.

But then it all fell apart. Head coach John Calipari—the Matisse of modern college basketball recruiting—left to take the vacant job at powerhouse Kentucky. Memphis floundered for a few years before deciding to tear it up and tap someone with deep Memphis ties.

Enter Penny.

Ever since Penny Hardaway returned to Memphis, there’s been a new energy around the team. While they didn’t qualify for the NCAA tournament, they made the NIT with a young team still finding its footing. In a basketball landscape where recruiting is increasingly tricky, Penny’s arrival in Memphis might usher in a new era of college coaches. Oh, and also: He has the best recruiting class in the nation coming next year. 

Here’s why you need to become obsessed with Memphis Tigers basketball, maybe immediately. 

The Roster

Before Penny came back to his alma mater, he coached Memphis high school powerhouse Memphis East to three straight Tennessee state titles. That pipeline has paid off: Next year, his former player James Wiseman, who just so happens to be the number one high school player in the country, will play for the Tigers, joining a few former Memphis East teammates (including Penny’s own son, Jayden). 

As if landing Wiseman in a non-power conference weren’t enough, Penny’s incoming freshman class is six deep, with only one recruit falling outside of the top 100. They’re also adding Rayjon Tucker, a transfer guard from Arkansas-Little Rock who is a fringe NBA prospect and will certainly be a pro somewhere in the world eventually. They’re stacked.

The ACC is not the SEC, despite a number of strong teams like Kelvin Sampson’s Houston and Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State. They’ll look like the Dream Team out there some nights, and underwhelm during others—that’s the nature of a young team at a new competitive level. But it’s going to be amazing to watch them put it all together.

Coach Penny

While Penny’s appointment on Memphis made a lot of sense to basketball insiders, it also represents a different current of coaching energy in college basketball. Even with ironclad USA Basketball connections on their résumés, venerable coaches like Bill Self and Mike Krzyzewski aren’t getting any younger. Even youngish coaches like Fred Hoiberg have expressed consternation with modern recruiting, a landscape that a younger coach who is more fluent in social media might be able to find opportunity in. 

Former NBA star Hardaway earned his promotion, to be sure. But it’s unusual to see a coach hop from a high school program, no matter how dominant, to a Division I program with a history like Memphis’s. Penny’s cachet—from the sneakers on up—is an attractive selling point to any player hoping to get the most out of his basketball career. Penny has been there, and he understands the modern game and its challenges at the college level. Could we see more former players like Penny ascend into coaching roles? Time will tell.

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