The 2021-2022 Memphis Tigers basketball season was a roller coaster of performances. After high preseason hopes by fans and the national media, the Tigers fought adversity on and off the court throughout the year, but they were still able to attain their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2014.
Coming off an NIT championship in 2021, Penny Hardaway received commitments from five-star recruits Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, added hall-of-famer Larry Brown and former Detroit Piston Rasheed Wallace to his coaching staff and secured his second No. 1 recruiting class since taking the head coaching job at Memphis.
It looked like the Tigers had the pieces to put together a dominant team that could compete against anyone in the country, but the season was anything but smooth sailing.
Following a 5-0 start to the season, Hardaway’s group dropped four-straight games against Iowa State, Georgia, Ole Miss and Murray State, and they plummeted out of the top 25 rankings. Memphis showed how good it could be as a team in a 14-point victory over Alabama, but the Tigers faced adversity again when the much-anticipated game against Tennessee was canceled an hour prior to tip-off due to a COVID-19 outbreak within Memphis’ program.
After a 15-day pause, the Tigers returned to action against Tulane to start conference play, but they dropped the conference-opener without Duren and DeAndre Williams in the lineup due to contact tracing. Memphis bounced back with three-straight wins against Wichita State, Tulsa and Cincinnati, but the group faced more adversity when they were met with the injury bug in the midst of conference play.
Williams, Duren, Bates, Landers Nolley, Alex Lomax, Earl Timberlake and Jayden Hardaway all missed multiple games with injuries, and the Tigers only had six scholarship players available against East Carolina on Jan. 15. With injuries and losses piling up, Hardaway made national headlines with a profanity filled rant following Memphis’ third straight conference loss against SMU.
While Hardaway talked about people doubting him and his team, the crucial point of the rant was he didn’t have his full team, and he was right. While Bates and Duren played in that specific game against the Mustangs, Williams and Nolley – two key veterans to the Tigers’ offense and defense – sat on the bench with injuries, and Hardaway hadn’t coached a game with his full roster since beating Alabama on Dec. 14.
This rant came at a critical point of the season. With the team sitting at 9-8 and 3-4 in American Athletic Conference play, many fans who had been dreaming of a run to the Final Four were turning their attention to NIT bracketology, and it looked like Memphis was going to struggle to finish over .500.
Despite the public criticism, his team responded, and they won 10 of their last 11 regular-season games – including two games against a ranked Houston team. The Tigers were playing like one of the hottest teams in the country, and they carried that momentum through the AAC tournament before losing to the Cougars in the conference championship game.
Thanks to the late-season run, Memphis played itself into the No. 9 seed, and they beat No. 8 Boise State by 11 points in Portland, Oregon, during the round of 64. As a reward for the first tournament win in eight years, the Tigers faced the No. 1 seeded Gonzaga in the round of 32, but they couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch to win the game despite a double-digit lead at halftime.
Although they lost by four points, Memphis showed a lot of fight against arguably the best team in the country, and it made most Tigers’ fans excited for what’s to come. Nobody ever said that it’s easy to build a program, but it’s a great sign that Hardaway has progressed from making the NIT, to winning the NIT to making the NCAA tournament and winning a game.
Overall, Memphis played well for most of the season, and they ended the year ranked No. 38 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 33 in adjusted defensive efficiency – which is points per 100 possessions – according to Kenpom.com. While the defensive efficiency rating was significantly lower this year than in the previous two seasons, the offensive efficiency was the highest since Hardaway took over.
They were also one of the most efficient teams in the country in offensive rebound percentage and block percentage with Duren and Williams in the frontcourt, but there were also some negatives. Memphis finished the season averaging 16 turnovers per game, and their turnover percentage – according to KenPom – ranked No. 351 among 358 division 1 basketball teams.
While the energy around the program was high, the momentum came to a sudden halt on March 27 when The Daily Memphian and the Commercial Appeal obtained copies of the notice of allegations (NOA) sent to the University of Memphis from the Independent Accountability Resolution Process (IARP). While the document was heavily redacted, it accused the University of seven allegations, and Hardaway was named in association with a Level I violation – which is the most severe, according to the NCAA – and a pair of Level II violations.
The NOA stemmed from the 2019-20 season when Hardaway played James Wiseman after the center was ruled ineligible by the NCAA. While the NOA doesn’t come with sanctions, it gives the school an opportunity to see what the NCAA has found and gives them an idea of what the punishments could be.
While the NOA stung for a lot of Memphis fans, more bad news came when players started announcing their plans for the offseason. Timberlake, Nolley, John Camden and Sam Onu all announced they would be entering the NCAA transfer portal, while Josh Minott and Lester Quinones elected to test the draft waters.
Both players retained their eligibility, but Minott told ESPN’s Jonathan Givony that he has no plans to return to Memphis. This means that if he doesn’t like what he hears from at the combine and other workouts, he’ll likely transfer to a bigger school.
Some people didn’t understand the move by Minott and Quinones, but at the end of the day, more players should make decisions like this. Every college basketball player’s dream is to make it to the NBA, and the NBA is giving all players an opportunity to participate in workouts and get feedback from scouts.
In 2016, John Calipari said that all of his players – including walk-ons – would enter the NBA draft and get feedback from scouts. Now, Calipari is known for getting one-and-done players so losing a handful of guys wouldn’t hurt him, but why wouldn’t players want to get NBA feedback?
From a coaching perspective, it seems like a win-win for both the player and the team if he returns to the college level, and you can say you sent a player to the NBA if the player decides to stay in the draft and get drafted.
With six players either in the portal or testing the draft, and one coach already accepting a new coaching position, the biggest question is what does Hardaway do now?
This was clearly a learning year for Hardaway, and some could say that the adversity he faced throughout the year made him a better coach. It’s obvious that the team played better towards the end of the season, and Hardaway should be given a ton of credit for getting the players to buy in late in the year and adjusting his game plans.
Hardaway has shown each offseason that he’s a great recruiter, and he said multiple times that he’s going to focus on the transfer portal this year. With only a handful of uncommitted recruits in the class of 2022 left, it’s likely that Hardaway could bring in a group of older transfers with one or two true freshmen to go along with the group coming back next year – which could include veteran leaders Lomax and Williams.
Some fans will say the NOA will make it harder for Hardaway to recruit top players, but honestly, coaches have been using this as a recruiting tool against Hardaway ever since the Wiseman situation took place. It’s been known that this was going to happen, but Hardaway has still been able to bring in top talent.
There’s a good chance that it could take a slight hit, but ultimately, there will be players who still want to play for Hardaway.
There’s no question that the former NBA pro is still developing as a head college basketball coach, but Memphis fans need to stick by him – especially with the NCAA likely punishing the Tigers in the coming years. People were defending Hardaway when he got the school in this mess by playing Wiseman, and fans should have his back now through the consequences.
After another three-game skid, the Tigers rallied back against Tulsa – which could spur a season-changing run for the team.
Penny Hardaway and Boogie Ellis take a moment to look on during Wichita State free throws. The Memphis Tigers defeated the Shockers 68-60.