"James Wiseman makes the game a lot easier for everybody." — Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway
The 99th season of Memphis Tiger basketball opened Tuesday night at FedExForum with the number one on the mind of every fan in attendance. Coach Penny Hardaway's top-ranked recruiting class — and the debut of James Wiseman,
the country's top-ranked freshman — headlined the Tigers' thorough beating of South Carolina State. For the first time in program history, five freshmen started the season-opener and six true freshmen played 65 percent of the total minutes. Wiseman delivered 28 points and 11 rebounds in just 22 minutes of playing time after sitting out the team's two exhibition games with what's been described as a minor ankle injury.
"[James] was going to erase a lot of the woes we were having," noted Hardaway after the game, the only mention of "woes" connected with his team in quite some time. "I'm really proud of our team. We're young, maybe the youngest in the country. We were a little stagnant at first, but it became a beautiful night for lots of reasons. Our game-plan discipline, the way we shared the basketball. We boxed out, only gave up seven offensive rebounds."
The Bulldogs made their first five field-goal attempts — three of them from long range — and took an early 13-8 lead. But the Tigers discovered their first rhythm of the season offensively and took command well before halftime. Memphis converted six dunks — three of them by Wiseman — in the game's first six minutes. After six misses from three-point range, D.J. Jeffries
drained the Tigers' first three-pointer of the season from the right corner to help build an 18-point (50-32) halftime lead. Wiseman had 20 points and eight rebounds at the break.
"I just took it possession by possession," said Wiseman, who said there was no discomfort in his ankles. "I trusted my teammates, and ran the floor. When I do that, the floor opens tremendously. The atmosphere was crazy. Playing the game we love, it was a lot of fun."
"We're young, and we have to play against ourselves," said Hardaway. "You have to build on sharing the basketball. Don't let any outside noise come in. They might say, 'You didn't get enough shots tonight.' Or 'You didn't get enough minutes.' The games are gonna get tougher as we go. But overall, we have to protect our young guys from outside noise, any negativity."
Sophomore guard Alex Lomax
saw nothing negative in the arrival of Wiseman, his former teammate at East High School (where they won a 2018 state championship under Hardaway). "James Wiseman makes a team go from a one to a ten. He led the way, made a lot of easy baskets and was an intimidator on defense. It's been a long time since I threw a lob to James . . . the easiest assist in the world."
Lomax scored eight points off the bench to support Wiseman, a total matched by three freshman teammates (Boogie Ellis, Damion Baugh
, and Lester Quinones
). Freshman forward Precious Achiuwa
picked up a pair of early fouls but scored 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds in just 18 minutes of action. Baugh led the Tigers with eight assists and Jayden Hardaway
(the coach's son) scored nine points in 11 minutes off the bench.
Ian Kinard led the Bulldogs with 13 points.
Thirty regular-season games remain to be played before the 14th-ranked Tigers know if the preseason hype can be translated into significant hardware. But Hardaway sounded like a coach excited to see the plot unfold, particularly with his new leading man back on center stage. "It's amazing, just seeing [Wiseman] run the floor," said Hardaway. "Them throwing the ball toward the rim, and him finishing. That's such a huge luxury. I had that in the NBA with [Shaquille O'Neal]. Just put it anywhere near the rim, and you get an assist from that. And him getting offensive rebounds."
The Tigers host UIC (Illinois-Chicago) Friday night at FedExForum, with tip-off scheduled for 6 p.m.