Entering year three, the pressure to produce is on for Penny Hardaway
Technically, Penny Hardaway was not wrong when he declared that his team, composed primarily of freshmen and sophomores, would take home the national championship a season ago. Nobody ended up being able to lay claim to those honors. However, one glance at their fifth-place finish in the American Athletic Conference and 21-10 record suggests he certainly was not right, either.
For Hardaway, though, context is crucial. For most of his tenure as coach, he has been forced to work with a limited deck. Whether it was controversially losing his ace early, dealing with a rash of injuries along the way or simply navigating the ebbs-and-flows that come naturally with a college basketball season, 2020 was marred with turbulence.
To say his first two years were unsuccessful, however, would be a drastic misstep. Precious Achiuwa, who was thrust into a different role after the departure of James Wiseman, became the first player in conference history to take home both freshman of the year and player of the year honors in the same season and seems to be a surefire NBA lottery pick. For a coach who bases so much of his recruiting pitch on player development and preparing his guys for the next level, this is huge for what he is trying to accomplish.
Despite playing with the youngest roster in the country, the Tigers .860 team defensive efficiency rating would end up second highest in the country behind only 2019 national champion Virginia, a program that Hardaway has stated on numerous occasions he would like for his to emulate. For context, Memphis had not finished in the top 50 in that statistic since the 2015-2016 season, making it impossible to ignore the strides they have taken on defense in such a short time. With five-star center and defensive stand-out Moussa Cisse also officially on board, expect this group to hover around the top of this category once again.
The problem, though, arises on the other end of the floor. Their .954 offensive efficiency rating was good for 250th nationally, snuggled comfortably between the likes of college basketball juggernauts Canisius and Washington State. While it is easy to point to the loss of Wiseman and the season-ending injury to D.J. Jeffries as significant hindrances on the offense, there were still too many possessions last year where the Tigers just simply settled for bad shots. Considering several of their losses a year ago came as a result of inconsistent offensive play either early or down the stretch, even a slight uptick in this category could make a legitimate impact on this team’s ceiling.
As he prepares for his third season at the helm, one must wonder if Hardaway feels any sense of angst about delivering on his goal to win the city a championship. What can be said, definitively, though is that his presence rejuvenated both a program that sorely needed it and a basketball-centric town that was longing for a team it could wrap its arms around. And maybe that’s enough. For now, though, it may be time for fans to recalibrate. 2019-2020 showed us that winning in division one college basketball is extremely hard. No one knows where year three of the Penny Hardaway experience will lead us, but we all know it will be captivating.