After the departure of head coach John Calipari in 2009, the University of Memphis had searched for an identity at the head coaching position since he had left. In 2018, many believed that they had found the solution as they hired former NBA star, and most notably former Memphis Tiger star, Penny Hardaway to the head coaching position. Many believed Hardaway would be able to bring the Tigers back to relevance almost immediately, with the Tigers at that point having missed the NCAA tournament since the 2013-14 season. Hardaway had a bumpy first season which is typical of most first year coaches who don’t have college coaching experience as the Tigers finished with a record of 22-14 and losing in the second round of the NIT a far cry from what Tiger fans had been waiting for from the program.
But despite a bumpy first season to start his collegiate coaching career, Hardaway went to work and reeled in the top overall ranked recruiting class in the nation headlined by number one overall prospect James Wiseman who had played for Hardaway on the AAU circuit before Hardaway had been hired by Memphis. As the season began it appeared that the Tigers were going to turn the page with such an outstanding class with Wiseman along with two other top 25 prospects. The Tigers started the season ranked 14th in the AP poll but the season quickly took a sharp turn just three games in as Wiseman was suspended for 12 games after an investigation by the NCAA that Hardaway had paid Wiseman’s mother $11,500 as they were moving back in 2017 to help with expenses. Wiseman attempted to appeal the ban, but the band was upheld. But quickly into the ban Wiseman decided to take matters into his own hands and left Memphis early and effectively derailed the season for the Tigers. The Tigers finished the season with another disappointing record of 21-10 and with postseason haven being cancelled, it is impossible to determine how they would have finished but it is very likely that they were heading towards the NIT again.
After another lackluster season the Tigers added top 25 recruit Moussa Cisse as the headline player for the class as Penny Hardaway brought in another top 10 recruiting class. By this point it was year three for Hardaway and he had yet to make the NCAA tournament and was struggling to live up to such large expectations that had been set for him. In a Covid-19 season where most teams did not have a home crowd to speak of Memphis struggled the entire season from beginning to end as they were never ranked to start the season and were never ranked the entire season. The Tigers finished the season with a record of 20-8 and were able to win the NIT championship marking the most accomplished season Hardaway has had with the team. Hardaway to this point had brought in several top ranked recruits and were recruiting so well that many believed that Hardaway was becoming the best recruiter in the nation and Hardaway hadn’t produced with the talent he had in three seasons as the coach and coming into this season many believe that Hardaway was finally going to find success.
Hardaway was able to miraculously pull out yet another top recruiting class as he was able to convince former high school phenom and top 5 recruit Emoni Bates to reclassify and come to Memphis as well as fellow top 5 recruit Jalen Duren as he also reclassified and committed to the Tigers. After the addition of the two highly touted freshmen many believed that the Tigers were going to finally make a leap and contend for a national championship. Along with the star freshmen tandem Hardaway hired former NBA and NCAA championship coach Larry Brown and several time NBA All-Star Rasheed Wallace as assistant coaches and made what many believed was an all star cast of coaches. But for a fourth straight year it appears that Penny Hardaway may very likely not live up to expectations. The Tigers were ranked 12th coming into the year, with many people expecting them to win the American Conference. Yet, the Tigers look far from contenders for any kind of championship seven games in. Memphis started off to a quick 5-0 start in mostly buy games, with the exception of Virginia Tech. But the Tigers have now lost two straight, being dominated by Iowa State by a score of 78-59, and then losing to then 2-5 Georgia in what should have been another tune up game for the Tigers. Hardaway thus far has seemed lost coaching this team using former small forward Emoni Bates as a pseudo-point guard. With Bates having no former playing time as a point guard or guard at all and is severely limiting the young star’s potential. The Tigers do not seem to have an offensive identity at all despite the talent of the young stars paired along several key veteran players that many believed would contribute mightily such as Landers Nolly and Deandre Williams. The Tigers are going to have to find a solution very soon after a crushing loss to a Georgia team that is very likely going to miss the NCAA tournament and possibly the NIT as well. But in spite of the talent on this team, they have not appeared to look like a team that was nearly ranked top 10 to start the season, and a popular pick to make a run in the NCAA tournament.
After such hype surrounding the hire Penny Hardaway currently stands with a record of 68-34 and has yet to lead the Memphis Tigers to the NCAA tournament despite bringing in several top three ranked recruiting classes. As a whole the program has yet to make the NCAA tournament since 2014 and it appears that may not change this year. With the amount of talent that he has brought in the several years he has been the coach at Memphis compared to his lack of success it is fair to say nobody has done less with more as a head coach and Hardaway at this point seems to be more of a recruiter than an actual elite coach that many thought he could be. If Memphis cannot produce even an appearance at the NCAA tournament this season there is no question that he should be on arguably the hottest coaching seat of any coach in America if this season flames out similar to previous years. Hardaway has shown time and time again this may be as good as it ever gets, and it seems clear that Memphis might serve better looking into other options.