Monday, November 23, 2020

2020-21 Tiger Hoops Preview

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2020 at 8:16 AM

If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.

If the Almighty pays any attention to college basketball, He must have lost His breath by the end of the Memphis Tigers' 2019-20 season. Penny Hardaway's second winter as head coach was to be the revival of a once-proud program, and then some. The country's most heralded recruiting class arrived. Surely a deep NCAA-tournament run awaited come March.

HA! The country's top freshman — James Wiseman — departed the program after three games, neck deep in NCAA investigative eyes after a financial exchange between Hardaway (then East High School's coach) and Wiseman's family in 2017. The team's second-leading scorer, D.J. Jeffries, went down with a knee injury the first week in February. Then just as the Tigers completed a second straight season in fifth place among American Athletic Conference teams . . . a pandemic eliminated March Madness. Pin that among your Memphis basketball seasons to remember.
click to enlarge Landers Nolley II
  • Landers Nolley II

But Tiger basketball is back, pandemic be damned. Gone, of course, is Wiseman, along with Precious Achiuwa, the electric forward who became the first Tiger freshman to earn conference Player of the Year honors. (Wiseman and Achiuwa were the 2nd and 20th selections, respectively, in last week's NBA draft, the first former Tigers chosen since 2012.) The U of M's top three-point shooter over the last two seasons — Tyler Harris — transferred to Iowa State, two seasons of Hardaway's tutelage enough for his ambitions. When the Tigers open play Wednesday in the Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they'll do so against the Saint Mary's Gaels and not the Ohio State Buckeyes, the latter having pulled out of the event over, you guessed it, coronavirus concerns. (Duke also pulled out of the tournament. Positivity rates in South Dakota have recently topped 50 percent.)

Last year's acclaimed freshmen — at least the five who remain — are now sophomores: guards Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones, and Damion Baugh, and forwards Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge. Hardaway expects, with a season behind them, these young veterans will make a larger impact than they did as college rookies. Add to this group a pair of significant transfers: sophomore Landers Nolley II (from Virginia Tech) and DeAndre Williams (from Evansville, pending NCAA approval to play this season). Nolley averaged 15.5 points per game for the Hokies last season and will be asked to fill the sharp-shooting role vacated by Harris. He hit 68 three-pointers as a freshman, but shot an underwhelming 32 percent from long distance. Williams started 15 games for the Purple Aces and averaged 15.2 points.

A pair of juniors — guard Alex Lomax and forward Lance Thomas — bring more experience to the floor for Memphis, though neither has found the consistency Hardaway would like to see. Having played for Hardaway since middle school, Lomax has adopted the "glue guy" role and will be expected to blanket opposing ball-handlers and shooters. Thomas teases with his height (6'9") but averaged only 2.5 rebounds in 15 minutes per game last season. (He made 13 starts.)
click to enlarge Moussa Cisse
  • Moussa Cisse

The star of Hardaway's third recruiting class is center Moussa Cisse. A native of Guinea, the 6'10" Cisse averaged 18.4 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 9.2 blocks in leading Lausanne Collegiate School to a 2020 state championship. He was the top-ranked prospect in Tennessee after reclassifying last summer to the 2020 class. He's the kind of interior defensive presence the Tiger program has lacked, for the most part, over the last decade. And nothing starts a fast break better than a blocked shot.

The Tigers are projected to finish second (behind Houston) in the preseason AAC coaches poll. They did not place a player on the first-team preseason all-conference squad (Jeffries and Nolley made the second team), and they are outside the Top 25 looking in. Cisse is picked to win the league's Rookie of the Year honor, but Hardaway, needless to say, is aiming for loftier achievements.



"It's refreshing to have [last year's] freshmen understand their roles now," says Hardaway. "They put a lot of pressure on themselves last season. And to see how good Landers and DeAndre are . . . they're great additions. We feel like we have the talent, but we haven't proven anything yet. We're going to have to earn everything."

After three games in Sioux Falls, the Tigers will open their home schedule December 2nd when Arkansas State visits FedExForum. (Attendance will be limited to between 3,000 and 3,500 fans, at least at the season's outset.) There will be only two other nonconference foes (Mississippi Valley State and Auburn) before the Tigers embark, fingers firmly crossed, on a 20-game league gauntlet.

"The two years I've coached [at this level] have taught me a lot," says Hardaway. "I don't think anything we'll surprise me. We're ready for every situation, any scenario. After two years, I've seen what I need to do as a coach. In the beginning, I was fast-tracking everything. But I'm caught up, and looking at things better on and off the court."

The University Memphis has somehow played six seasons without reaching the Big Dance, and the program hasn't gone seven years without proper Madness since the days when the tournament invited fewer than 30 teams (1963-72). Will there be a 2021 NCAA tournament? Will it be played in a single-city "bubble" for pandemic protection? A bigger question for a long-frustrated Tiger fan base: Would a return to the tournament bring jubilation, or merely a sigh of relief? Take a few deep breaths and grab your face coverings, because we're about to find out.

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