Penny's Players


I stood in a crowded media room at the University of Memphis Athletics Office Building in January 2005, awaiting a Decision. Certain announcements get the capital-letter treatment, and this was one of them. DeAngelo Williams — the incomparable Tiger running back — was to announce whether he would return to the U of M for his senior season or enter his name for the upcoming NFL draft. There were more than 100 people packed into that room, and we were split on the choice Williams would make. He was ready to play professionally . . . but might he want to play another year in college?

Williams announced he was staying. To this day, the cheer that greeted that announcement is the loudest I've heard at a "sporting event" where no score was being kept. It was utter joy, magnified by each individual in that room.
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Penny Hardaway

James Wiseman's Decision (yep, capital letter), announced last week in the auditorium at East High School, may prove to be as significant as the one Williams made almost 14 years ago. And the announcement — this time with a stuffed unicorn as part of the fun — elicited a massive roar from those in attendance (many of them longtime Tiger boosters). But there's a significant difference between the Williams and Wiseman Decisions: there was no drama last week, no matter how much the ESPN crew and cameras craved it. We knew James Wiseman would play basketball at Memphis, not on November 20th, but on March 20th, when Penny Hardaway took the job as Tiger coach. The young man's family moved here from Nashville to play for Hardaway in high school. That decision (lower case) was likely harder than the one the seven-foot star made last week.

Think about it. Would a high-profile local basketball prospect host a public gathering in his new hometown, during college basketball's early signing period, to announce he's leaving for greener pastures? If young hoop stars have learned nothing else from the great LeBron James, they've learned televised Decisions can backfire and damage a man's reputation for years. Sure, there were four other logos — Wiseman's "finalists" — displayed in the East auditorium. Best of all, Kentucky's was on the board. But there was no drama, no doubt. And the finest tribute we can pay Penny Hardaway in his transformation of the Tiger program is that we all saw this coming.

When the Tigers tip off the 2019-20 season, 60 percent of Hardaway's starting lineup may well be the same 60 percent that helped him win a 2017-18 Tennessee state championship at East. In addition to Wiseman, forward Malcolm Dandridge (a four-star recruit himself) is part of the 2019 Memphis recruiting class. Alex Lomax — a freshman at the U of M and once a Wichita State commit — is already starting for the Tigers. These are Penny's players. They'll wear blue and gray because Hardaway is now (again) wearing blue and gray. If the University of Memphis has ever realized so quick a return — and so game-changing a return — on an investment, it may have involved Keith Lee and a shoebox full of cash.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither were Hardaway's Memphis Tigers. The current team's interior weakness was exposed during a 20-point loss to Oklahoma State in Orlando on Thanksgiving. Through six games — 20 percent of the regular season — Kyvon Davenport leads Memphis with a pedestrian 6.6 rebounds per game. The Tigers are in need of a player who can protect the rim on defense and attack it when they own the ball. Hmmm. I wonder where one of those might be found?

Wiseman's announcement was no surprise. Nor should be the occasional stumble this season as a rookie coach gets to know a roster tasked with being, essentially, a preview of things to come. And that's the first real challenge of the Coach Hardaway Era: accept present shortcomings as we await exceptional solutions.

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