Once again, Memphis finds itself in headlines after securing the commitment of five-star Jalen Duren and 6-foot-8 phenom Emoni Bates, the top two players in 2022, before they reclassified to 2021. It’s not unchartered territory for Anfernee Hardaway locking it elite recruits — Memphis had the #1 class in 2019, headlined by James Wiseman, who only played three games for the program. Wiseman was one of seven top-115 players in the 2019 class for the Tigers, but only two still are with the program (Lester Quinones, Malcolm Dandridge), as D.J. Jeffries(Miss St), Boogie Ellis (USC), and Damion Baugh (TCU) transferred this off-season.
Losing players via the transfer portal is prevalent for every team in America these days, not just a Memphis issue. But losing valuable pieces on a team that got scorching hot late in the season is surprising. The four guys named earlier, and Moussa Cisse left the Memphis program during the off-season. Can Penny Hardaway rally his troops to overcome the lack of continuity? There are many new faces on the roster, including the two prestigious recruits Bates & Duren.
It’s reasonable to give Memphis a mulligan for the disappointing 2019-20 season. When your top recruit only plays three games, your third-leading scorer missed significant time with injury, and another valuable player breaks his wrist, it’s reasonable for a subpar season to occur. If Jared Butler left Baylor after three games, Mark Vital missed significant time with injury, and Matt Mayer missed early season action with an injury, Baylor wouldn’t be the current champions. If Wiseman plays the entire season, what could Memphis have done? It’s a question we’ll never get answered, but the narrative surrounding the program would change had Wiseman stayed.
Lack of late-game execution continued to be a thorn in Memphis’s side for a second consecutive season, whether it’s turnovers (308th in KenPom turnovers percentage) or inability to make free throws (61.7% from the line, 340th in the country. That issue didn’t always result in losses but creates bad habits — for example, Memphis led a Tulane team, who finished 144th in KenPom by 13 with 55 seconds remaining to only win by six points following missed free throws and turnovers. The offensive improved in a big way in 2020-21, leaping from a horrid 210th Offensive rating (per KenPom) to 117th in their NIT winning season. Defensively, Memphis led the entire country in defensive rating as the trio of Alex Lomax, Lester Quinones, and DeAndre Williams stifled opposing offenses. If you’re a Tigers fan, here’s a reason to be encouraged — during the four-game NIT championship run, Memphis turned it over less than 15 times in every game. That’s notable for a team that hadn’t accomplished such a feat in two years. Expected starting guard for 2021, Alex Lomax missed the entire NIT after suffering an injury. Considering Lomax’s sublime 1.9 turnovers per game, it’s bizarre to see Memphis’s turnovers drop that much.
Longtime Basketball coach Larry Brown (Yes, that Larry Brown), at 80 years old, took an assistant job on Penny Hardaway’s staff this off-season. Brown is widely respected around the basketball community and is the only coach in history to win championships as a head coach at the NCAA (Kansas 1988) and NBA level(s) (Pistons, 2004). The move makes sense, and the only surprising part is how long it took Hardaway to bring an experienced coach to help, following Juwan Howard’s way of bringing in longtime St Joe’s lead conductor Phil Martelli to Ann Arbor. Brown’s presence could help limit some of the careless mistakes Memphis teams made in recent seasons.
The recent addition of former Larry Brown player Rasheed Wallace brings a familiar name within the program that could help on the recruiting trails. Everyone knows Rasheed Wallace’s name, whether it’s for his creation of the evergreen “Ball Don’t Lie” saying or because of his tremendous playing career. Sheed made four All-Star games, won one NBA title, and played 17 NBA seasons. Every young basketball player’s dream is to play professionally, making a living play the game you love. If you’re a recruit looking to make the NBA one day eventually, how could you not consider learning under two coaches that combined for 31 seasons in the league? Guys who made several All-Star games. Guys who reached the true pinnacle of every Basketball player’s dreams.
Point Guard Fiasco
If you have qualms about Memphis, it’s likely a result of the Tigers’ lack of point guard play. Last season, Penny Hardaway rotated three guys (Damion Baugh, Boogie Ellis, Lomax) at the lead guard spot, but Baugh and Ellis transferred out. Lomax, as mentioned earlier, is a reliable ball-handler and plays tight defense but doesn’t contribute much scoring-wise.
What’s the best plan of attack?
Alternating four guys on the ball, Quinones, Bates, Lomax, and Miami transfer Earl Timberlake — all four have experience handling the ball. For Quinones, his turnover number dipped from 2.2 to 1.4 per game last season, showing he won’t make terrible decisions when bringing the ball up. He’s best used as a 3-and-D player but could wind up seeing significant minutes running the offense.
Bates is familiar running the point; most elite high-school and prep perimeter players handle the ball for various reasons — often times, they’re the best player and love taking shots. Bates’s shooting is erratic at times and isn’t a Kyrie Irving-level ball-handler but plays under control.
Miami transfer Earl Timberlake is an underrated transfer addition — crazy athletic players that defend 1-5 on the floor aren’t easy to come by. Timberlake fits seamlessly into the tough defense the Tigers possess, and having another capable ball-handler on the floor doesn’t hurt.
Pinpointing who will be the primary ball-handler is impossible, but much of it could be situation-based — If Memphis needs points? Bates is the guy. Memphis needs someone to hold onto the ball late in games? Definitively Lomax is the option.
After adding Bates and Duren, the Tigers have a top-five recruiting class in the country per 247sports. Memphis has the top recruiting class in America, returns three starters, and adds another top-50 recruit from the transfer portal. Not many teams in the country are more talented on paper. Due to the elite talent on the roster, Memphis currently ranks sixth in the nation in my current rankings, passing Kansas in sixth place. Will they succeed in those expectations? It’s tough to say, what I do know is there’s elite talent on the roster — even the depth pieces could start on many teams in the country, top-50 recruit Joshua Minnott would be the top recruit on 340+ teams in the country — he’s third in the Tigers 2021 recruiting haul. It’s safe to conclude nobody in the country benefited from the Name, Image, Likeness rules passing than Coach Hardaway’s Tigers. It seemed unlikely only a mere 12 calendar months ago that Bates would seriously entertain the collegiate path, now finding himself playing at Memphis, which seemed more improbable. Top recruits will continue putting the Tigers high on their lists, but things could pivot if that doesn’t start translating into victories.