Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Penny Speaks, We Listen

Posted By on Tue, Apr 24, 2018 at 12:10 PM

Anfernee Hardaway hosted his first formal press conference as head coach of the University of Memphis basketball team last week. The pride of Treadwell High School spoke to more than 30 reporters for 30 minutes about his first 30 days on the job. He exuded a comfort with the position most rookie coaches would envy. He appeared to feel at home in the shiny new Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center. And he said a few things we'll remember when his first college team takes the floor in November.

"We got into the [recruiting] game really late, and to assemble the talent we did is a blessing."
However Hardaway's career as Tiger coach unfolds, his first month will be part of his legacy. With most of the nation's top 2018 recruits having long signed with other programs, Hardaway managed to land a pair of elite local talents — East guard Alex Lomax and Cordova guard Tyler Harris — when either one would have been a blessing, of sorts, for the departed Tubby Smith. Add a third four-star prize (shooting guard Antwann Jones from Tampa) and Memphis has a class that would have earned plaudits even if it had not been an 11th-hour fix for the 2018-19 season. Quite a fix, indeed.

"Our message was, 'We're gonna teach you, develop you, get you better.' That's what the parents wanted to hear, outside the education piece, which is most important. Most of these kids want to go to the NBA. Who better to get them there than me and Mike [Miller]."
Hardaway has preached the importance of returning the Tiger program to its glory days, connecting the current program with teams older fans remember cheering when Larry Finch, Keith Lee, and Hardaway himself wore blue and gray deep into the NCAA tournament. But the future of the Tiger program is more about three letters: N, B, and A. Whether or not the professional league's "one-and-done" mandate remains in place for draft eligibility, elite basketball players are drawn to college programs that will clear a path to professional riches. Hardaway's Tiger past is a nice, sentimental coating to the story he'll craft as a college coach in his hometown. But it's his NBA pedigree that attracts the likes of Lomax and Harris. Add Mike Miller (with his own AAU connections) and Memphis has a recruiting tandem — a combined 1,736 games in The League — unlike any other in the country.

"I want to play the big boys. That's how you measure yourself, especially early."
Tennessee is back on the schedule. (The Vols will start the 2018-19 season among the nation's Top 20.) Hardaway is pursuing a home-and-home series with Kentucky. (He drew laughter when he mentioned John Calipari asking for a neutral site.) Over an 11-day period last December, Memphis hosted the following four teams: Mercer, Samford, Bryant, and Albany. And people wonder why all the empty seats at FedExForum? The training wheels must be removed from the Tigers' nonconference schedule. Hardaway seems intent on doing so.

"Everybody's buying in. And that's what we wanted, to get people excited about Tiger basketball again."
Hardaway mentioned the standing ovations (plural) he's received since being named head coach and the gratitude Tiger fans have shown for him being willing to "help us." I can't speak for the new coach, but this transition feels as much like a rescue mission as it does merely the return of a native son to a position of prominence. Furthermore, with Larry Finch dead and Keith Lee a recluse, there's only one person on the planet who could spearhead such a rescue. The community feels this and Penny Hardaway is starting to feel it.

"First it's compliance, then Tony [Madlock] who I call every day."
Hardaway and Madlock made for a special backcourt the one season they played together, taking the Tigers to the 1992 Elite Eight. Madlock will now serve as Hardaway's assistant with the most experience in the college game. Whatever value Miller brings as a recruiter, Hardaway will need some guidance when it comes to game management, coordinating a rotation, and simply communicating with each of his players. Madlock will be big in these areas. [Longtime NBA coach Sam Mitchell is expected to be the final assistant added to Hardaway's staff.]

"The smallest thing is a no-no on this level. I'm very careful."
Hardaway wasn't allowed to join a celebration of East High's recent state championship . . . and he coached that Mustang team. Such is life for a modern college basketball coach, maneuvering daily within (hopefully) the rules and regs of a governing body that sometimes seems unable to define its own legislating. The rookie coach is attentive to this new job structure and appears willing to take the necessary steps to ensure a clean program on his watch.

"We want to win a national championship. It's not far-fetched."
Hardaway mentioned Loyola-Chicago's story, that no one picked the Ramblers to reach the 2018 Final Four. He doesn't expect his Tigers to be placed in the category of Kentucky, Duke, or Kansas merely by his presence on the sideline. But Hardaway does expect such a standard to be the aim of his players and coaching staff. He's not shying from the sport's highest bar. "With the right mindset and the right coaches pushing you, anything's possible."

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