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Memphis has landed plenty of elite recruits yet still hasn’t earned an NCAA Tournament bid during Penny Hardaway’s coaching tenure.
Perhaps this is the year that changes.
Memphis returns three of its top five scorers from a team that won the NIT last season and also brings in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to composite rankings of sites compiled by 247Sports. The 12th-ranked Tigers are hoping that combination adds up to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.
“No matter what anyone says, you’re only going to win big when you have really good players,” said Hardaway, who enters his fourth season at Memphis with a 63-32 record. “And to have the roster that we have now, we have really good players.”
Memphis heads our list of teams that have excellent shots at reaching the NCAA Tournament this season after failing to get there in 2021.
The Tigers’ six-man freshman class includes two top-five recruits in 6-foot-9 forward Emoni Bates (No. 4 in the 247Sports Composite) and 6-11 center Jalen Duren (No. 5).
This isn’t the first time Hardaway has brought in the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
Memphis also had a top-ranked class in 2019 that featured James Wiseman, who played just three games before leaving school to prepare for the start of his pro career. That team won 12 of its first 13 games but faded down the stretch and likely wouldn’t have earned an NCAA bid, even if the pandemic hadn’t halted the postseason.
This year’s team seems more balanced.
The Tigers return Landers Nolley II, who earned first-team all-American Athletic Conference honors and was the most outstanding player in the NIT. Hardaway believes that postseason run helped, even if it didn’t come in the NCAA Tournament.
“The kids that come back, that came back from that experience, they know that they’re champions, first of all, and they know what they want now,” Hardaway said. “They want more.”
There’s still a lingering infractions case hanging over Memphis’ program as a result of Wiseman’s recruitment, but that might be the biggest issue that complicates the Tigers’ postseason hopes.
On the court, Memphis has more than enough talent to end its NCAA drought.
Plenty of usual NCAA Tournament regulars didn't go dancing during the unusual pandemic-impacted 2020-21 season. Here’s a look at some other schools that figure to earn NCAA bids this season, even though they didn’t in 2021.
This traditional power hasn’t played in an NCAA Tournament since making a first-round exit in 2018. Arizona’s 17-9 record likely would have merited a bid last season, but school officials imposed a postseason ban related to a pending NCAA rules infractions case. Arizona could end that drought under first-year coach and former Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd. The Wildcats will need big returning players Bennedict Mathurin, Azoulas Tubelis and Christian Koloko to take a step forward. Arizona also added transfers Oumar Ballo (formerly at Gonzaga), Pelle Larsson (Utah) and Justin Kier (Georgia).
NO. 22 AUBURN
After replacing the nucleus of the team that earned the school’s first Final Four bid in 2019, Auburn fell to 13-14 last season. Auburn already had self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2020-21 season, but the Tigers wouldn’t have earned a bid regardless. Auburn has since restocked its roster by adding transfers Walker Kessler (formerly at North Carolina), Wendell Green Jr. (Eastern Kentucky), K.D. Johnson (Georgia) and Zep Jasper (Charleston), plus a freshman class featuring Jabari Smith, the nation’s No. 6 prospect in his class according to the 247Sports Composite.
NO. 9 DUKE
Duke opted to end its season in the midst of the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament after a positive COVID-19 test. The Blue Devils were just 13-11 at the time and probably would have needed to win the ACC Tournament to extend their streak of 24 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. The Blue Devils figure to start a new streak in coach Mike Krzyzewski's final season before retirement. Duke's freshman class has three top-25 recruits in Paolo Banchero (No. 2), A.J. Griffin (No. 17) and Trevor Keels (No. 22). Duke returns 7-footer Mark Williams and adds Marquette transfer Theo John.
Indiana is coming off a 12-15 season and hasn’t reached an NCAA Tournament since making a regional semifinal in 2016. But there’s a new energy surrounding this squad with the arrival of first-year coach Mike Woodson, a former NBA player and coach who starred for the Hoosiers from 1976-80. Indiana also features an Associated Press preseason All-America selection in Trayce Jackson-Davis, who averaged 19.1 points and nine rebounds last season.
NO. 10 KENTUCKY
Kentucky went 9-16 last year to finish below .500 for the first time since 1988-89. An NCAA Tournament was held without Kentucky for the first time since 2013. But there’s reason to believe that was an aberration rather than the start of a trend. Kentucky brought in two top-15 recruits in TyTy Washington and Daimion Collins, but the Wildcats won’t be relying on freshmen quite as much as usual. Kentucky’s roster features several returning players, including sixth-year guard Davion Mintz, plus transfers Oscar Tshiebwe (West Virginia), CJ Fredrick (Iowa), Kellan Grady (Davidson) and Sahvir Wheeler (Georgia).
Xavier made 12 NCAA Tournament appearances in a 13-year stretch from 2006-18, but hasn’t been back since. Xavier went 13-8 last season and returns its top seven scorers from that team. The Musketeers’ list of returners includes Paul Scruggs and Zach Freemantle, who were second-team all-Big East selections last season.
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