HARTFORD, Conn. – The Memphis basketball team’s NCAA tournament chances disintegrated beneath the force of a hammer dunk.
UConn freshman guard James Bouknight sprinted ahead on a fast break on Sunday afternoon, corralled a laser pass from Christian Vital and imprinted Memphis freshman Precious Achiuwa on a poster. Bouknight drew a foul to add insult to infamy.
The moment rose above a rock fight of questionable aesthetics, as the dunk boosted UConn’s lead to five points with just over three minutes remaining and allowed the Huskies to grind out a 64-61 victory. The loss ostracized Memphis to the remote fringes of the NCAA tournament conversation, many hemispheres from a season that began with bold talk by Penny Hardaway about winning a national championship.
This Memphis season is instead wheezing to an end, with the Tigers (17-8) falling to 6-6 in American Athletic Conference play after their third straight loss. The national title visions that Hardaway so audaciously declared this fall have descended to whispers of NIT seeding. The chatter about a new generation’s Fab Five-caliber recruiting class has crumbled to excuses of too much youth.
“We got to win out, to me,” Hardaway said when asked about what was necessitated to get back into the NCAA tournament conversation. “I wouldn’t say win out. We got to win some big games. I wouldn’t put that much pressure on the young guys. But we have to win some impressionable games.”
If that comment on Sunday evening elicits a chuckle from some veteran coaches around college basketball, don’t be surprised. Hardaway worrying about placing pressure on his team is a far cry from what he told The Athletic this fall: “We’re going to win a national championship.”
Instead, Memphis will be remembered as the biggest disappointment of the 2019-20 college basketball season, a tease of talent undercut by attrition, injury and the same youth that gave oxygen to Hardaway’s preseason chutzpah.
Yes, it must be acknowledged that that two of Memphis’ best players are missing. James Wiseman, the 7-foot-1 prodigy and likely No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, decided working out was better for his professional future than playing for Memphis. D.J. Jeffries, a 6-foot-7 forward and one of the core pieces of this ballyhooed Memphis recruiting class, is out for the next two-to-four weeks with a knee injury that makes him unlikely to return in the regular season.
“Obviously we had national championship dreams earlier, and that wasn’t far-fetched,” Hardaway said. “Especially the way that college basketball is happening this year with so many teams going up and down. But when you lose the No. 1 pick, or the No. 1 player in the country, then you have to regroup.”
So as Hardaway is trending toward finishing his second season at Memphis without an NCAA bid, it raises an interesting referendum on his actual coaching. His ability to win the offseason is without peer, as he did it with both his hire in 2018 and by luring the No. 1 Rivals.com class in 2019. In terms of fan support, relevancy and pure talent, Memphis is light years ahead of where they were under Tubby Smith.
But what do we really know about Hardaway as a coach? So far, those around the AAC have complemented how hard his teams have played. There were some inspired X’s-and-O’s moments out of set situations on Sunday, creating easy baskets out of dead balls. But there’s also been that garish 40-point loss at Tulsa, a spree of losses in close games and a general feeling that the Memphis sum – even without Wiseman – doesn’t match the Memphis talent.
The most fair criticism of Hardaway – and Memphis as an entire university – was the careless risk of seeking a court injunction to play Wiseman in a meaningless game against overmatched UIC in November. While the moment played out to public cheers as it showed defiance toward the NCAA, the reality was that it was a foolish risk. And while the blame for that should go to Memphis president M. David Rudd, Hardaway also could have stepped back and taken a longer look at the big picture.
Memphis made the move banking on Wiseman eventually returning and helping them. That backfired when he bolted, leaving Memphis vulnerable to significant repercussions for violating NCAA rules by playing him. (Sports Illustrated has reported that “a major infractions case targeting Memphis is now likely.”)
“At this point, we’re just looking forward,” Memphis AD Laird Veatch told Yahoo Sports on Sunday when asked about the potential NCAA fallout. “I’m not going to go back. You can always go back and analyze decisions and think about it different ways. At the time, we felt like we were doing the very best thing we could.”
As we prepare for an NCAA tournament with LSU, Auburn, Kansas, and Arizona as frontline teams, Memphis’ decision continues an era where daring the NCAA to punish them has become a strategy.
“People think if you cheat that you can get away with it,” said a veteran head coach in a power conference. “They don’t have any faith in the NCAA to do anything. The NCAA hides behind the membership. It’s gone on for decades, and the NCAA has never dealt with it the way they’ve needed to deal with it.”
For all his celebrity, NBA millions and bold talk to the establishment, Hardaway finds himself slogging through February like dozens of other college basketball coaches. He’s pinned on the wrong side of the bubble, trying to keep a roster with just one upperclassman engaged. “That was a hard pill to swallow,” he said of losing Wiseman and Jeffries. “These guys are trying to adjust on the fly, and I think they’re doing a hell of a job.”
That may be relative to their current reality, but certainly not the preseason prognostications. With no recruits committed for 2020 and top assistant Mike Miller lobbying hard for head coaching jobs behind the scenes, there are reasons to be skeptical about the future.
But assuming Achiuwa leaves and Jeffries returns, there’s a strong core for next year. College basketball, however, is a year-to-year business and one NBA scout summed up the best way to view Hardaway’s tenure so far. “You just wonder what he can do going forward with no big recruits coming in,” the NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “Who stays? Who goes? Next year, we will truly know how good a coach he is.”
Projecting next season is difficult. But as Memphis wallows in the grandiose expectations Hardaway cast, the safest prediction will be of more humility and less proclamations in Year 3.
“Just patience,” Hardaway said when asked what he’s learned this season. “I’ve already known [from] last year that it’s hard to win a college game, period. It’s really difficult to win with all freshman, especially when the team was kind of broken up. You keep plugging away and keep pushing. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
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