After seeing his team’s chances go up in smoke even before the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA postseason altogether, two things were clear: Penny Hardaway had maybe over-stepped when he declared his group of freshmen and sophomores would win the national title, and there was still a good bit of roster tinkering left that needed to take place before this program could seriously compete at the level it is aspiring to. With reigning conference player of the year Precious Achiuwa departing for the NBA, guard Tyler Harris deciding to transfer to Iowa State and assistant coach Mike Miller stepping down to take the head position at Houston High School, it was sure to be an offseason flush with change for the Tigers.
A year ago, Hardaway made waves by securing the country’s top recruiting class, declaring boisterously to the rest of the college basketball world that Memphis was once again a force to be reckoned with. This time around, however, he would take a different approach to building his team.
First off, it’s crucial to note the lone freshman expected to play significant minutes is a big one: five-star center Moussa Cisse, standing at 6’10” with a 7’4” wingspan, offers tremendous defensive upside as a shot-blocker and is currently projected as a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. Outside of their standout big man from Lausanne High School, though, the rest of the new faces were all already playing in college last season, albeit at different levels, before choosing to transfer.
Redshirt sophomore Landers Nolley, a 6’7” guard from Fairburn, Georgia, arrives from Virginia Tech after leading the Hokies in scoring (15.5 ppg, 5.8 reb, 37% shooting, 31% from three) and being selected to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s (ACC) All-Freshmen team a year ago. After recently being granted immediate eligibility instead of being forced sit out for one season like transfer players usually are forced to, Nolley figures to be a key piece in Hardaway’s rotation for the upcoming season. His lengthy frame will create difficulty for the smaller guards he will face in the American Athletic Conference and his potential on the offense makes him a very intriguing fit next to Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones and D.J. Jeffries.
The prospect of Nolley and Jeffries each giving you 15-20 points a night on the wing with Cisse roaming the paint must be tantalizing for Hardaway and nightmare-inducing for the rest of the coaches in the AAC trying to game plan how to stop them.
“D.J. Jeffries right now is a guy that comes out first, and Landers Nolley, he’s proven in the ACC, averaging 16 points a game, he’s another guy. Those two guys,” Hardaway said. “D.J. is our guy. He is the guy that is going to have to carry the load, he came in with a lot of promise; unfortunately, he got hurt but now he is healthy and looking great and he is ready to go.”
Alongside Nolley, redshirt-junior Deandre Williams, who played last year on the Evansville team that upset then top-ranked Kentucky at Rupp Arena, will potentially be a big part of the re-made frontcourt rotation pending approval of his transfer waiver. In an offseason where the NCAA has been more generous than usual with granting waivers, it seems encouraging that Hardaway will end up with his 6’9” stretch forward in the fold, but only time will tell. Williams is coming off a strong campaign in which he averaged 15 points and nearly 7 boards while shooting an efficient 64.8% from the field and would be another nice boost to an offense that struggled at times in 2020.
Lastly, Ahmad Rand, a junior college transfer from USC Salkehatchie, will round out a frontcourt that starts to look a little crowded with Cisse, Lance Thomas, Malcolm Dandridge, Isaiah Stokes and potentially Williams if his transfer is approved. While Rand may not have garnered the same type attention that some of the other prospects did, his gaudy five blocks per-game average stood out to Hardaway and the defense-first culture he has been working to instill. Rand was rated the number 11 juco player in the country and ended up landing with Memphis rather quietly, but it seems this staff is very bullish on his long-term defensive ability.
“The expectation is still the same,” Hardaway said. “We still want to win on a high level. We understand that we finished fifth two years in a row in this conference, but with them understanding what is going on now, I’m feeling really good about this team.”
Partnered with the expected development from returning core guys like Ellis, Quinones, Thomas, Alex Lomax and Damion Baugh, on paper Memphis once again has a promising team. Only time will tell us if Hardaway and these Tigers will finally be able to break through the glass ceiling and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2014, but with all that length and defensive versatility up and down the lineup, it almost feels like a guarantee that the energetic, physical, havoc-wreaking brand of Memphis basketball that Hardaway has been longing to restore will be back in full force.