Memphis Basketball's Meteoric Rise

Examining the Tigers' incredible transformational process

We are still months away from the 2019-2020 NCAA men’s basketball season, but it’s never too early to check out future odds. Per Vegas Insider, some familiar schools currently have the best odds to cut down the nets: the Michigan State Spartans, Kentucky Wildcats, Kansas Jayhawks, Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels, Villanova Wildcats and reigning champion Virginia Cavaliers. 

However, one surprising university is also included. The Memphis Tigers have the fifth-best odds to win the title (14/1). They are topped by only Michigan State, Kentucky, Kansas and Duke. 

The rapid ascension that the program has seen is nothing short of incredible. In 2018-2019, former Memphis star and NBA veteran Penny Hardaway took over the program and led the Tigers to a 21-13 record. The team went 11-7 in American Athletic Conference play and missed the NCAA Tournament for the fifth-consecutive season. 

Before this five-year drought, Memphis made the NCAA Tournament 10 out of 12 years. But, a lot changed since the clock hit zero last season. 

A Top-Ranked Freshman Class

Hardaway and his staff landed seven top prospects in the incoming freshman class. Per 247 Sports’ rankings, 7’1” center James Wiseman (1st overall), 6’9” forward Precious Achiuwa (14th), 6’2” combo guard Boogie Ellis (37th), 6’7” forward DJ Jeffries (49th), 6’5” shooting guard Lester Quinones (57th), 6’8” center Malcolm Dandridge (102nd) and 6’4” combo guard Damion Baugh (112th) all rank within the top 112 prospects in the country.  

It seems like a virtual certainty that Hardaway will trot out an all-freshman starting lineup, reminiscent of John Calipari at Kentucky. 

The class is headlined by Wiseman, a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft who decided to stay in his hometown and play for his former AAU coach. He averaged 25.8 points and 14.8 rebounds at Memphis East High School last season and won the prestigious 2018-2019 Gatorade National Player of the Year award. 

Wiseman’s decision and impact on the city of Memphis might even transcend what he accomplishes on the court.

“When I committed to the University of Memphis, there was an old lady that started crying,” Wiseman told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated back in April. “I didn’t know it was that serious. She told me that she was truly blessed to see me play next season and that I brought a lot of hope back to Memphis.”

Redshirt freshman Ryan Boyce will make his Tigers debut as well this season, just like redshirt sophomore Lance Thomas, a 6’9” forward who transferred from the Louisville Cardinals program. He played minimal minutes there in the 2017-2018 campaign, but could compete for a role in Memphis this season. More than anything, he noticed that a wave of energy and excitement swept over the team after the latest recruiting class was set in stone. 

"It's a way different feel," Thomas told Jason Munz of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at the end of June. "Just the energy. We can feel the energy the city is giving us from here. We don't go out much, but when you do go out, you feel it. And you feel it in here. (Even Hardaway's) energy is different. He's the same coach with the same principles. But he's more excited; you can tell. He's got a different kind of look in his eyes. He seems more focused, more determined. Everything seems more like, 'Come on.’" 

Returning Contributors 

Diminutive 5’9” sophomore point guard Tyler Harris was the team’s most productive player returning this year. Appearing in 36 games (15 starts) last season, he averaged 10.8 points per game (3rd on the team) on 36.9 percent shooting along with 1.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists over 25.5 minutes. 

Sophomore Alex Lomax, another diminutive (5’10”) guard, appeared in 35 games (11 starts) last year and chipped in 5.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists in 19.9 minutes per contest. Isaiah Maurice, the lone senior on the team, logged minutes in 36 games (nine starts). The 6’10” forward posted 5.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 13.4 minutes per game. 

Their impact on the team remains to be seen, but they could provide important depth. All three started a portion of last year’s contests, so it appears as though Hardaway and his staff have some trust in them. 

A Schedule To Capitalize On

While most of the traditional powerhouse basketball schools play in competitive conferences, the Tigers have the ability to essentially become the Gonzaga University of the east. They’ll host ECU and Temple in conference play, travel to UCF and Tulsa and play home-away series against Cincinnati, UConn, Houston, USF, SMU, Tulane and Wichita State. 

Although UConn, Cincinnati, Houston and SMU have been formidable at times in recent years, Hardaway’s incredible recruiting class should seemingly vault them ahead of their in-conference competition from a talent perspective. Outside of the AAC, the team agreed to play at Northeastern, South Carolina State, and Tennessee. They also committed to play in the Myrtle Beach Invitational which includes Mississippi State, Villanova, Baylor, Utah, Middle Tennessee State, Ohio and Coastal Carolina.

Unlike programs like Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, Memphis should be able to cruise through most of their schedule and should avoid ranked opponents for most of the season. If the young squad can find chemistry early-on, they could wind up landing one of the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament, which would certainly bode well for their championship aspirations. 

At 14/1, there is significant upside in betting on the Tigers. However, that bet requires you to fully buy into a group of 18-year-old kids (a few of which can be one-and-done talents) building championship-level, team-first mindset under a second-year head coach. That takes a bit of a leap of faith, but Vegas’ love for Memphis is indicative of the transformative job Hardaway and his staff have done since last season’s final whistle.