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VOL. 133 | NO. 85 | Friday, April 27, 2018

Players’ Experience

On Recruiting Trail, Reputations of New Memphis Coaches Precede Them

By Don Wade

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In his piece on John Calipari at theringer.com, writer Jordan Ritter Conn makes the case that the former University of Memphis coach is the best recruiter in college basketball history. His evidence includes this statistic: Since coming to Kentucky in 2009, Calipari has landed 30 McDonald’s All-Americans and sent 33 players to the NBA.

No wonder that in the article’s prologue Calipari’s program is dubbed “The Kentucky Basketball Association.”

For the moment, however, push aside whatever you might believe or suspect about the way Calipari has operated in the NCAA shadows everywhere he has been. Because he did not create the KBA, if you will, just by presenting himself and his program as the Yellow Brick Road to professional stardom. At least, that’s the message that Calipari’s former players deliver in this article.

Penny Hardaway celebrates with Tigers’ fans following a press conference in March introducing him as the new head coach of the University of Memphis men’s basketball team. (Daily News File/Houston Cofield)

Yes, former UMass star Marcus Camby does say of Calipari, “That man can sell water to a well.” And that’s worth a smile.

But Camby, like all the other players interviewed in the story — including former Memphis Tiger Jeremy Hunt — say that Calipari’s best attribute as a recruiter is the ability to connect on a personal level. And sit down for this one: to be unfailingly frank and honest during the recruiting process.

This is notable for its own reasons, but also because Memphis now has a one-of-kind staff in place and out on the recruiting trail. No other school has a former NBA star and still-famous shoe promoter as its head coach. But that’s who Penny Hardaway is, along with being a hometown hero and former Memphis State All-American.

Add assistant coach Mike Miller and his two NBA titles, his Rookie of the Year honors and Sixth Man of the Year Award (in 2005-06 with the Grizzlies), and any top-tier prospect can get from the Memphis staff what even Calipari, the failed NBA coach, can’t provide: real-life experience as a player in the league.

“The main game plan, especially with me and Mike, is we’re gonna develop you,” Hardaway said just days after bringing coveted local recruits Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris into the fold. “We’re gonna get you better. That’s what most of the parents really wanted, outside of the education piece.

“We can get you to where you want to go and most of these kids want to go to the NBA. And who better to teach than myself and Mike?”

Whether Lomax and Harris prove to be NBA-level talents, time will tell. But regardless, the reality remains the same: A player’s chance of getting there and staying there figures to be greater playing college ball under guys that have succeeded at the game’s highest level. Hardaway, don’t forget, was a four-time All-Star with the Orlando Magic.

Memphis Grizzlies’ swingman Mike Miller (13) high fives teammate Zach Randolph during an NBA game against the Phoenix Suns in 2014. (AP File Photo/Matt York)

Miller says they don’t even have to make a hard NBA pitch to recruits. The kids know the value of their experience. Their parents know.

“We’re not saying it as a `sell.’ It’s the truth,” Miller said. “Every step they’re trying to make, we’ve made twice.”

The Internet is full of Tigers recruiting news, of course, with everything from what top prospects think of Penny to whether James Wiseman, the consensus No. 1 player in the Class of 2019 and a prime target of Calipari’s and Penny’s, will reclassify. And which way, in any given moment, Wiseman might be leaning.

But Hardaway and Miller are also up front that their plan is not just to try and pick off the top guys. They know many of them will still end up at Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, etc., even as they concede nothing. So they will take their best shot at the elite of the elite and also seek talented players below the peak level that fit with the fast-paced and well-spaced offense they want to run and the hard-nosed defensive commitment that is crucial for success.

“Everybody doesn’t have to be a five-star,” said Hardaway. “I like the eye test. We don’t need all McDonald’s All-Americans, because that doesn’t work in my mind. Some guys might just be defenders. You need those glue guys as well. I just want to see guys who are unselfish and don’t care who gets the success.

“I’m gonna enjoy this process of dissecting kids’ games and seeing where they fit in with our schemes.”

The strategy, then, is not to copy Cal’s perceived M.O., but to use to best advantage the natural strengths Hardaway and Miller bring and that no other program has: two guys who have pretty much seen and done it all and can relate to whatever situation a college player finds himself.

Coaches at other schools no doubt will paint this as a sales pitch — that’s just the smart play — but that doesn’t make Hardaway’s and Miller’s NBA experiences any less valid, any less real.

“I’ve been a starter and coming off the bench as the sixth man,” said Miller. “I had DNPs (did not play) at the end of my career. I’ve been there, know what guys are going through. I know what it’s like to be injured, know what it’s like to be frustrated. Penny knows. And I know what it’s like to feel homesickness.

“We’ve done all that,” Miller said, “and there’s respect in that.”

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