By LARRY VAUGHT
Obviously I knew plenty about Penny Hardaway from his days as a star for Memphis and then in the NBA. But I had never met him until he brought his Memphis East High School team to play in the Marshall county Hoopfest two years ago.
I found him personable and easy to talk with. I found him engaging. I could also sense that he had a real connection with young players who obviously both admired him and trusted him.
Now he’s into his second season as the head coach at Memphis after taking over for Tubby Smith. Many thought Hardaway could have some success, but I am not sure anyone thought he could have the recruiting success he’s having now.
It started with convincing James Wiseman, the top player in the 2019 recruiting class, to sign with Memphis and not Kentucky as most had been expecting. Of course, Wiseman played a year for Hardaway at Memphis East and was also in the AAU program headed by Hardaway.
Former UK commit D.J. Jeffries, another Memphis area player with AAU connections to Hardaway, picked Memphis after changing his mind about UK. Recently Duke committee Boogie Ellis switched his pledge to Memphis.
He’s also signed Malcolm Dandrige, another former Memphis East player, and Damion Baugh, a Tennessee Prep star I also watched play at Marshall County Hoopfest. Both are top 100 players.
He’s also signed top 50 player Lester Quinones, a 6-5 guard from IMG Academy in Florida, and could well still add five-star Precious Achiuwa, a McDonald’s All-American and a likely one-and-done star like Wiseman.
And yes he did also add Rayjon Tucker as a grad transfer from Little Rock. That may not overly impress you but Tucker is one of the top grad transfers in the country.
Memphis basketball has not been so hot since the days current UK coach John Calipari was leading the Tigers to the Final Four. Hardaway has made the nation pay attention again.
Now he has to win, something I think he’ll do this year. He knows basketball and while this will just be his second year as a college coach, he’s got plenty of talent to work with.
If he has a good season and gets players ready for the NBA, then it won’t matter if his team doesn’t win the title or even make the Final Four. He’ll have shown he’s a force to be reckoned with nationally and a coach that will battle Calipari — or anyone else — for top talent annually.