As hard as it is to believe, college basketball tips off in just about one month from now - and to get you ready for the season, Aaron Torres Online will be giving you 30 previews in the coming 30 days to get you ready for the start of the year, all written by the Torres Online team of Zac Krull, Austin Montgomery and Aaron Torres
Today, Zac Krull gets you started with one of the more interesting teams annually in the sport - the Memphis Tigers.
Penny Hardaway finally got his alma mater to an NCAA Tournament. Now, after an off-season of flipping most of his roster through the transfer portal - and avoiding heavy NCAA sanctions - Hardaway again appears to have a roster talented enough to make the Big Dance.
How it went down in 2021-2022
Last season was a successful year for the Memphis Tigers Basketball program, considering they made it to and advanced in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2014.
It was the culmination of a winding first four years for Penny Hardaway at his alma mater. Through his first three seasons, Penny did a great job of bringing in talent to the Memphis program, but it didn't translate much on the court. Despite bringing in McDonald's All-Americans James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, fellow top recruits Boogie Ellis, DJ Jeffries and others, it led to what would've been a missed NCAA Tournament in 2020 (had it been played) and an NIT title run in 2021.
Which takes us to last season.
The Tigers returned seven of their top eleven leading scorers from the NIT title team, and as importantly, made big recruiting moves late in the summer, adding Top 10 prospects Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates committing in August.
Early on last season, it was clear the chemistry between the older and younger players was not working and the struggles translated into the win-loss category. By early January, a Memphis team that started the season ranked No. 12 in the AP Poll, was sitting at 9-8 overall and a disappointing 3-4 start to conference play. At the time it felt unlikely that Memphis could break their seven-year NCAA Tournament drought but to his credit, Hardaway got things turned around.
Unfortunately, much of it centered around the departure of Bates from the program. Bates left mid-season with a back injury, missing 14 games in total, and the Tigers went on a run from there. Following the 9-8 start, the Tigers went 12-2, with many advanced metrics labeling them as one of the top few teams in the country once Bates left.
The school made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the Hardaway era, and also won its first tournament game under its fourth-year coach as well, beating Boise in Round 1. A narrow loss to Gonzaga - one where Memphis largely outplayed the tournament's No. 1 overall seed - eventually ended the season in the Round of 32.
Still, with an NCAA Tournament appearance and win, it's hard to argue that the 2022 season was anything but a success for Hardaway and Memphis.
As we head to 2022-2023, the Tigers again have a fascinating roster, capable of making the Big Dance.
Yet, they might have already picked up their biggest win of 2022 before the season even began.
What You Need to Know About 2022-2023:
Key Returnees: DeAndre Williams, Malcolm Dandridge, Alex Lomax, Jayden Hardaway, Chandler Lawson
Key Losses: Jalen Duren, Lester Quinones, Landers Nolley II, Emoni Bates, Tyler Harris, Josh Minott, Earl Timberlake
Key Transfers: Kendric Davis (SMU), Keonte Kennedy (UTEP), Elijah McCadden (Georgia Southern), Damaria Franklin (Illinois-Chicago), Kao Akobundu-Ehiogu (UT-Arlington)
Like many teams in college basketball, Memphis had a wild off-season of roster turnover. But before we get to it, we must address the single biggest story surrounding the Tigers this off-season - one that finally came to a resolution.
That was the seemingly never-ending NCAA investigation into Memphis by the NCAA, for Penny Hardaway's role in the recruitment of James Wiseman. The situation hung over the program for years, with most everyone assuming that a significant punishment was coming to the school.
Instead, in late September, the newly-formed (and soon to be abolished) IARP - the independent council put in place by the NCAA to review cases - announced no major punishment for the Tigers program. There are small fines and probation, but Hardaway will not be suspended (or forced to resign) and there will be no NCAA Tournament ban.
Memphis can breathe a sigh of relief and move on to 2022-2023.
And with it, they'll have almost an entirely new roster. Duren went pro, where he was a Top 15 pick, with Lester Quinones and Josh Minott pursuing professional options as well. A few players left the program via transfer, namely Landers Nolley (Cincinnati) and of course, Emoni Bates, who left for Eastern Michigan after one uninspiring season.
But looking ahead to 2022-23, it seems like Penny Hardaway learned a lesson from his first few recruiting classes as head coach of the Memphis program. Instead of targeting some of the better high school players in the country, Hardaway targeted a few really good transfers, while also looking for specific players that do specific things well in order to help the team. A team which has relied on instant-impact freshmen for most of Hardaway's regime, will now be one of the oldest teams in college basketball.
This year, it all starts with arguably the best transfer that was on the market in former SMU Mustang Kendric Davis. After starting his college career at TCU, Davis has spent each of the last three seasons playing at SMU and has averaged over 14 points per game in each of those three seasons, including averaging over 19 points per game in each of the last two seasons. Last year he won AAC Player of the Year honors.
Davis will be the primary ball handler for this Memphis team and has the chance to be one of the more dynamic scorers in the country. Davis’ three-point shooting ability will also be something to watch as a fifth-year senior, as he has improved that area of his game over the course of the last few seasons. Davis has shot at least 37 percent from three in each of the last two seasons, after shooting approximately 31 percent in each of his first two seasons at the collegiate level.
In terms of returnees, Memphis does bring back veteran DeAndre Williams, who was one of Memphis’ more consistent players a season ago. Williams will be one of the older players in college basketball this season, set to turn 26 in October right before the start of the season. ‘
Having a guy like Williams who is experienced and has seen everything at the college level will be important for this Memphis team. From an on the court standpoint, Williams' production cannot be minimized as well, considering he has finished each of the last two seasons as Memphis’ second leading scorer, He also had 14 points in each of Memphis’ games in the Big Dance against Boise State and Gonzaga. Williams should be the clear cut option for Memphis’ scoring in the paint, and also has the ability to knock down a three point shot every once in a while.
Beyond Williams, the rest of the core - like Davis - will largely come from the transfer portal, and largely play very specific roles.
First, there is Keonte Kennedy from UTEP, who averaged 14 points per game last season and should be one of Memphis’ better players on the defensive end. In the past two seasons, Kennedy has registered 1.53 steals per game. The only Memphis players with a better rate during that span are DeAndre Williams and Alex Lomax with 1.71 each.
Memphis also improved their defense in the paint with the addition of Kao Akobundu-Ehiogu. Kao played the past two seasons at UT-Arlington, where he ended his career there ranked third on the school's all-time blocked shots list with 134 in just 47 games. His 2.9 blocks per game average during his career ranks fifth-most among all active Division I players, and he had nine games of five-plus blocks.
Additionally, the Tigers added transfer guard Damaria Franklin late in the summer, shortly after another transfer, former Boise wing Emmanuel Akot committed, then decommitted from the Tigers (he wound up at Western Kentucky). Franklin was the team's leading scorer a season ago, averaging close to 18 points per game.
Finally, there are a couple key role players who will also return from last year's NCAA Tournament team, namely Malcom Dandridge and Alex Lomax. Both players have been in the program over the last handful of years and should fit right in with a very experienced Memphis team.
After coming off the bench over the course of the last three seasons, Dandridge should see an opportunity to be a major contributor for the Tigers alongside Williams in the front court. He averaged 4.4 points and 2.6 rebounds per game in only 11.8 minutes of action per game as a junior, and had one his better efforts of the season, in Memphis’ narrow Round of 32 NCAA Tournament loss to Gonzaga, with eight points and five rebounds.
In addition, Lomax has been playing for Penny Hardaway since his high school days and knows exactly what his head coach expects from anyone on the floor. Lomax likely won’t see as a big a year compared to years past, with the Tigers already having a primary ball handler in Davis. With that being said, his experience is valuable and Lomax should be one of the better Point Guards off the bench in the sport.
Penny Hardaway has loaded up Memphis’ non-conference schedule over the course of the last few seasons, and that trend is set to continue this fall. Even with teams like Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida getting ready to participate in their last season in the American Athletic Conference before they head to the Big 12, the American doesn’t always provide you with enough opportunities for quality wins.
Well, that won't be an issue for the Tigers this year.
Memphis will face five SEC teams during the non-conference portion of their schedule including games at Vanderbilt and at Alabama, vs Ole Miss and Auburn and home against Texas A&M. The latter of those three teams should be ranked or hovering around the Top 25 and like last year should help Memphis gain more chances at quality wins.
The Tigers will also face good Atlantic 10 teams in VCU and at Saint Louis, in addition to playing in the ESPN Events Invitational over Feast Week. That tournament features Florida State (which should be ranked in the Top 25 to start the year, as well as Oklahoma and Seton Hall, who are both projected preseason NCAA Tourney teams.
What to Expect in 2022-2023
This year will prove to be quite an interesting dichotomy for Penny Hardaway and the Memphis Tigers. In many years they have entered the season full of hype, thanks in large part to the recruitment of elite high school players.
This year, they're entering relatively under the radar, after targeting older, veteran players to fill specific roles in the portal.
For Memphis, what the entire season essentially boils down to is a few things: One, can Kendric Davis and DeAndre Williams play like the All-AAC players they're capable of being, and if they do, can they get help from the transfers who've come in around them. Keonte Kennedy and Damaria Franklin both need to provide the scoring that they were known for at their previous stops, with Kennedy and Kao Akobundu-Ehiogu serving as defensive anchors as well.
Most importantly though, whether this team ends up back in the NCAA Tournament will largely depend on what they do in the out of conference portion of the schedule. Last year the Tigers got off to a slow start, and it was only once they hit the middle of league play that they really got rolling. Well, this year's team isn't as talented on paper as last year's, and outside of Houston (and maybe Cincinnati) the league won't likely provide a lot of great wins.
Therefore, against a brutal out of conference schedule, Memphis has to get their fair share of wins. They're obviously not going to beat everyone on a schedule that includes Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and several marquee games in the ESPN Events Invitational. But they can't lose all of them as well.
Still, as long as Memphis can win a few games in the out of conference and do what they need to do, there's no reason they shouldn't find themselves back in the Big Dance.
Houston is the favorite in the AAC, but Memphis should finish second. And should be headed back to the Big Dance for the second straight season.
Follow Zac on Twitter - @ZacKrull_