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Four things to watch out for as University of Memphis basketball looms

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Precious Achiuwa dribbles up the court at a Memphis practice. The freshman was the second highest ranked player the school picked up behind James Wiseman.

Although basketball season is still months out, the pieces are beginning to fall into place across the country. Whether it be tinkering with potential lineups, looking to designate player roles or even just coordinating practice schedules, these are the dog days of the offseason for college coaches.

It’s no different for Penny Hardaway, who finds himself in an excellent position after landing the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class. While there are high expectations for the Tigers to perform, there will be several deciding factors that determine how special the 2019-2020 campaign can be. 

Team Defense is the priority 

In year one, Hardaway preached the importance of team defense at every opportunity. That same mindset hasn’t gone away this summer, it’s only intensified.

“I think I just really respected, just from taking the numbers from and watching film on all the top defensive teams around the country, and how they went about their business,” he said. “Playing against Texas Tech, playing against Cincinnati, playing against Houston. Those teams were very successful getting through the tournament and getting very far because of their defensive prowess.”

If Hardaway’s super-talented bunch buys into his defense-first mindset, Tigers fans may be in for a truly historic season.

How is Penny going to manage the minutes? 

For a high-profile recruiting class like the one Penny and his staff put together, questions concerning minutes management come naturally. After all, there’s only one ball and 40 minutes on the clock.  Balancing emotions and egos may be just as important as anything that happens on the floor. 

“We’ve got the talent,” said No. 1 overall recruit James Wiseman. “So, we’ve just got to leave our egos at the door, trust each other and make it happen.” 

Hardaway showed last year that he isn’t afraid to adjust his lineups on a nightly basis. The aggressive, fast style of play the second-year coach prefers is more effective when he’s able to run platoon-style swaps, to make sure that players do not get too tired at one specific stretch. How deep Penny decides to go into his bench is another question, but fans can expect to see a lot of quick, strategized substitutions. 

Can Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris step up as leaders in year two? 

When Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris decided to stay home and join the Tigers, it was a feel-good moment for a program that needed a shot in the arm. During their freshmen seasons, they were fan favorites, but the leader responsibilities fell on the shoulders of senior players like Jeremiah Martin and Raynere Thornton.

Now that the senior class is out of the picture, Lomax and Harris are expected to take a step forward and lead guys who are in the same position they were in a few months ago. However, since they’ve been playing for Hardaway since their early years in AAU, the coach is counting on the pair of second-year guards to take on a more vocal role.

“I feel young, but I’ve got to still step up,” Lomax said. “Off the court, mentally, the small things, things that don’t have to do with basketball, just being on time, things of that nature. I still feel young, but I know I have to be a leader in some areas that other guys wouldn’t think about. Small things matter the most.” 

That veteran mindset and experience playing under Hardaway will be crucial for both Lomax and Harris to take that step forward and show that they can help lead this program back to the level that the city has been yearning for. 

Just exactly how good is Lance Thomas? 

Perhaps the best-kept secret in the AAC, hyperathletic forward Lance Thomas may be on the verge of a breakout year. Thomas, who was forced to sit out the 2018 season after transferring from Louisville, figures to be competing for a significant role in the frontcourt alongside newcomers Precious Achiuwa, Wiseman, Malcolm Dandridge and fellow returnee Isaiah Maurice. 

What makes Thomas such an intriguing fit in Hardaway’s system is his athletic ability for a player his height. At 6’8” he’s tall enough to bang inside, but he’s also fluid and fast enough to run the floor like a guard.

“Lance is a fierce competitor,” Wiseman said. “He taught me a lot himself. He’s a great mentor, and he’s really my opponent at practice. Lance Thomas is a great player and he just doesn’t get any credit for it.” 

Thomas is confident that the hard work he put in while he was ineligible to play will pay off for him in 2019. As one of the older members of the roster, he will be looked to as a veteran presence despite not having played last season.

“I’m a natural-born leader,” Thomas said. “Whether it be on the court or off, leading isn’t something that I’m scared of at all.” 

As classes resume and the new campaign approaches, there are still plenty of questions surrounding what this 2019 Memphis basketball team will look like. Based on Hardaway’s insistence upon team defense and whether he can successfully keep everyone upbeat and engaged, the expected growth from returnees Lomax and Harris and the unknown entity that is Lance Thomas, the one thing that seems definite is that they will be fun to watch.

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