The Memphis Tigers have missed the NCAA tournament every year since 2014. In that span, they have produced one NBA player (Tarik Black), finished fifth or lower in the American Athletic Conference every season, and cracked the AP Top 25 poll exactly zero times. Many preseason polls, however, have Memphis ranked in their top 15. This sudden change is no coincidence. It’s the effect of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.
Penny Hardaway, a native Memphian, started his basketball career at Treadwell High School. He averaged 36.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game his senior year. He went on to play college ball at Memphis State University, now the University of Memphis, from 1990 to 1993. After the 1992-93 season, Hardaway was named an All-America and a finalist for the Naismith and Wooden player of the year awards.
Following the 1993 season, Hardaway declared for the NBA draft. The Golden State Warriors picked him third and then immediately traded him to the Orlando Magic. In Orlando, Hardaway paired with Shaquille O’Neal and made the 1995 NBA Finals. A two-time first-team All-NBA honoree, Hardaway finished his illustrious career in 2007 with the Miami Heat and was inducted into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame in 2017.
Following his retirement from the NBA, an unexpected turn of events lured Hardaway into coaching. “I had a neighborhood childhood friend, Desmond Merriweather, that was coaching the middle school team in our old neighborhood. He was diagnosed with colon cancer. He couldn’t coach the team anymore, but he wanted to still be involved while he was going through chemotherapy, so he asked me to coach.” recalls Coach Hardaway. From coaching middle school to high school and eventually college, Hardaway never looked back.
Hardaway believes that his professional experience helps sway players that want to go to the NBA to come to Memphis. His time in the NBA also allowed him to learn from some of the greatest players of his time.
“Shaq was what we call rim-runner," Hardaway says. "He was the best-running big man that I have ever played with in my life. He learned how to just run down the floor every time and he could have his man one-on-one. It is what I teach my bigs, to try to be the first person down the floor."
“Jason Kidd was one of the fiercest competitors and the most unselfish guy I ever played with. He put team before his self every single night, and defensively he wanted to guard the best player on the other team.”
Kid Reporter Aneesh Achanta and Penny Hardaway
Hardaway is currently entering his second season as Memphis’s head coach and just wrapped up the top recruiting class in the nation. The new additions to the Memphis Tigers roster features seven of the top 110 ranked players, including James Wiseman, the consensus No. 1 recruit. These recent events have brought the kind of excitement Memphis fans haven’t felt since 2008, when their team featured Derrick Rose.
With their great offseason, however, comes pressure on the Memphis players to perform.
"We've got the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, so that comes along with the expectations, which is good for me because I would rather have the expectations of winning a national championship than to not be mentioned at all," Hardaway said.
Another challenge coach Hardaway will be faced with is getting his players to adapt to sharing the court with other great scorers. According to him, “sacrifice” is a key word the Tigers use in practice. Coach Hardaway consistently teaches his players the importance of sacrificing their individual goals sometimes for the betterment of the team.
The Memphis Tigers' basketball future is bright with Penny Hardaway leading the charge.
“I can speak from experience to my guys because I have actually been in the battle," Hardaway said. "I played at the highest level so I can tell my point guards this is exactly what worked for me to get to where I wanted to go."
He is confident he can keep up this level of recruiting for many more years because of a college basketball trend where “guys are recruiting other guys.”
As for the present, Coach Hardaway has a very simple season goal: “to win the national championship.”
(Lead photo credit: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)