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Penny Hardaway Is Turning Memphis Around

Since his arrival a little over a year ago, Penny Hardaway has put on some work on the recruiting trail, improving Memphis squad and making it a go-to place for top-ranked prospects around the nation.

Associated Press

It can’t be argued. These Tigers are in for the kill, and it all goes down to Penny and his assistants’ prowess when it comes to recruiting.

Back in March 2018, the University of Memphis made it official. Penny was coming home to his alma mater as the head coach of the Tigers from 2019 on. After two seasons with Tubby Smith at the reins, the native of Scotland, Maryland, decided to also follow his heart and come back to his university, High Point. It opened the door for Hardaway at Memphis.

Tubby’s tenure in Memphis, while short, wasn’t that bad. He took a 19-15 team, played to a 19-13 record in his first season and then improved to 21-13 by the end of the 2018 campaign.

In his first season leading the Tigers, Memphis improved the AAC record of the team to a winning percentage of .611 (11-7) and finished with an overall record of 22-14. The squad was able to put up 80 points a night, 10 more than they did on Smith’s last season, but missed on making the NCAA Tournament (not that they were ever a sure bet to do it, though).

Things started changing with Penny’s arrival, as he was able to lock his first commitment just weeks after first stepping into the Tigers facilities as head coach. On April 13, Tyler Harris became Hardaway’s first recruit to commit to Memphis, enrolling for the 2018-19 season in which he already played every game, started 15 and logged 25.5 mpg while posting averages of around 11/2/2 per game as a true freshman.

While getting Harris was not bad for the university (he was ranked as the 132nd-best prospect in the nation in the 2018 class), things were only going to improve in the recruiting aspect under Penny.

Just five days after Harris’ commitment, soon-to-be-Tiger James Wiseman made his first visit to Memphis. Something was brewing, indeed. Fast-forward a year to the present day and things can’t look brighter in Tennessee’s second-most populous city.

Per 247Sports Team Rankings for the 2019 class, which to say, for the upcoming 2019-20 season, Memphis ranks first over colleges such as Kentucky, Arizona, and Duke, three of the bluest blue-bloods you can name.

These rankings are easy to follow and they assign both points and an average ranking to each college based on the recruits they get. For example, Duke is first in average of their recruits (a proxy to how highly nationally-ranked they are) but only fourth on points. Here are the top four and their values:

  • No. 1 Memphis - 97.66 Avg - 70.11 Pts
  • No. 2 Kentucky - 98.35 Avg - 69.87 Pts
  • No. 3 Arizona - 97.12 Avg - 69.4 Pts
  • No. 4 Duke - 99.28 Avg - 69.32 Pts

As you can see, Memphis is third in average but trumps every other school on the points rankings, which is normal given that they have seven total commits coming to Memphis (Kentucky and Arizona have five recruits to Duke’s four in comparison, lowering the average of the Tigers).

Coming back to Penny Hardaway and his successful recruiting, we can take a look at past data (247Sports has rankings going back to 2003) to see how clear it becomes that he’s really changing Memphis culture in those terms.

While the 2019 Tigers’ class is not the best ever Memphis got, it is right up there with the 2007 one. Back in 2007, Memphis was able to get an average recruit of 99.22 although there were only two names on the list (Derrick Rose and Jeff Robinson). That made for a No. 41 class in the nation, nothing to be too proud of.

This season, though, Penny has already got word from as much as seven prospects. The average ranking currently sits at 97.66, boasts two five-star players in Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, and five four-star players with the late additions of Lester Quinones and Boogie Ellis, the latter one after he decommited from Duke earlier this month.

B/R Hoops

What jumps to the eye is the improvement of the Tigers’ class from last season to this one. Considering Penny arrived in March and by then most of the 2018 Class recruits had already picked their college of choice, we can deem the 2019 one as the true first fully-recruited class by Hardaway.

With that in mind, Memphis’ class has improved 8.99 points on the average of their recruits, going up from an average of 88.67 to the already mentioned 97.66. That is, by far, the biggest improvement of any college this year in comparison to what they got in 2018. Here are the most improved universities in 2019:

  • No. 1 Memphis - +8.99 Avg
  • No. 9 Georgia - +5.96 Avg
  • No. 27 Virginia - +5.85 Avg
  • No. 25 Washington - +5.04 Avg

Not only does Memphis lead the pack, but they also have gotten more recruits than anyone (Georgia has five while Virginia and Washington have three each, which boost their averages).

There have been many noticeable jumps from season to another (Memphis’ 2018 to 2019 one of +8.99 only ranks 101st since 2003 among all of the nation’s colleges after all), but it can’t be argued Penny has vastly improved how prospects see the Tigers nowadays, making them as appealing as the best universities out there.

If we look at schools that jumped into the Top-5 from one year to the next one, this Memphis’ class shows the 9th-best improvement, and if we only take into consideration colleges that recruited at least seven players while making that jump, then its +8.99 Avg improvement ranks third-best.

Memphis has improved the average of the players they have recruited for three consecutive seasons now. Obviously, those runs can’t be expected to last too long as when a class gets to a certain level of excellence the next one can only get regress and be worse. Even with that, Penny Hardaway has made a statement and proved that he’s definitely committed (no pun intended) to turn the Tigers into a powerhouse and (at minimum) make it to the Tournament for the first time 2014.

Watch out for Memphis come March. This team is a beast in the waiting and there won’t be many more teams hungrier than the Tigers when Madness arrives.