VOL. 133 | NO. 125 | Friday, June 22, 2018
By Don Wade
The first game in the next University of Memphis college basketball season is still more than four months away. But what’s four months when you’ve been waiting four years, or maybe even longer, for Tiger basketball to feel whole again?
The hiring of native son and former Tiger great/NBA star Penny Hardaway did exactly what everyone knew it would: gave the city a jolt, restored hope and started the clock on returning glory to the program.
Hardaway has been on the job since March, but now the excitement spreads beyond the famous coach and the fans who saw him play back in the day.
Penny Hardaway has brought renewed interest and hope in University of Memphis men’s basketball, not only among fans but also the team’s new recruits and returning players. (Daily NewsFile/Houston Cofield)
Players, both the hotshot recruits that Hardaway brought in – most prominently homegrown freshmen talents Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris – and the returning players feel the anticipation, too.
“I get a lot of love when I go out around town. It’s a happy mood,” Lomax said.
“You feel it going to the store,” said senior guard Kareem Brewton Jr. “People come up to you and say ‘I can’t wait. I’ve bought my season passes.’ ”
Said Harris: “It’s been mind-blowing … we walk out there and it’s like we’re stars.”
They are stars. Maybe not in the sense that they’ve made a college All-American team like their coach did or that their names are often spoken on ESPN. Not yet, anyway.
Tigers senior guard Jeremiah Martin (3) and other returnees have welcomed Hardaway’s faster style of play, which Martin says makes the team less predictable for opponents. (File/Cal Sport Media via AP Images)
But to be a Tiger basketball player in this town is to be accorded automatic respect and a certain celebrity status. Or at least that had been the case until recently.
Tubby Smith managed to win more games than he lost here, but the program lost relevance under his watch. Fans stopped coming to games, with season tickets last season falling to just over 4,100 – a 48-year low. Many long-time fans no longer even knew when the games were.
And in many cases, they didn’t really know the players wearing the uniform. Meanwhile, players became all too accustomed to looking at rows of empty seats in the lower bowl of FedExForum while entire sections in the upper bowl were left unoccupied.
“It was bad last year,” said forward Kyvon Davenport, one of five seniors held over from Smith’s last squad. “We felt we could have way more (people) because we were winning. But this will be great … we’ll get more energy from the fans who are more involved in the game.
“It’s going to be a new experience for most of us because we’ve never had that many people watching us.”
All of which can only help inspire the players as they put in their work this summer. Yes, they get to practice in the gleaming new Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center on south campus; if you have to practice, better to do it in a virtual palace.
Still, it’s work. There is a new system to learn and a new coaching staff with Hardaway and fellow ex-NBA players Mike Miller and Sam Mitchell (also a former NBA coach) and Penny’s old backcourt mate Tony Madlock, who most recently was interim head coach at Ole Miss.
So there is excitement building internally, too. The returnees from last season have welcomed the faster style of play that this staff wants, making the game more like the NBA and, in senior guard Jeremiah Martin’s view, less predictable.
“It’s easy to scout a team when they run the same plays all the time,” Martin said, referencing the sets used last season. “Coaches and teams catch onto you easy.”
But don’t be misled: Playing fast and spacing the court does not mean Hardaway will give anyone a moment’s free pass on defense. To the contrary, players say the emphasis is on defense first and that sweat and equity are synonyms in their new head coach’s world.
“He said he can’t be wasting his voice on playing hard,” Martin said. “Has to come natural, something we have to do every day and has to be in us.”
If it is, the offense should flow. So imagine it: The Memphis Tigers are flying up and down the floor, digging in on defense, and spreading the wealth on offense.
On the court at FedExForum, a Tigers player won’t have time to glance up in the stands to see how many fans are there. Then again, he won’t need to because he’ll hear them.
“I visualize all the time,” Harris said. “In the gym shooting, I’m thinking, ’15,000.’ ”