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Memphis’ hiring of Penny Hardaway had plenty of critics, but he’s now done what he was hired to do

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When Tubby Smith was fired and replaced with Penny Hardaway in March 2018, the development was met with complete enthusiasm inside the Memphis market because smart fans had been demanding it for months. But the reaction was much different around the country.

Many mocked it.

Some denounced it.

But is anybody laughing now? Does anybody still have jokes after Hardaway spent Friday securing a commitment from another 5-star prospect and completing what is officially the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, according to 247Sports? To be clear, I’m not here to name names and pull receipts because, let’s be honest, all of us in the opinion-giving business have had our share of bad opinions. Whatever. But, man, there were some really bad opinions connected to Memphis’ decision to fire Smith and replace him with Hardaway even though, like I wrote when Memphis did exactly that, firing Smith and replacing him with Hardaway was the only sensible move Memphis could make regardless of how you felt about Hardaway’s coaching background that was limited to middle school, high school and the grassroots circuit.

Folks detached from the situation just didn’t understand why.

It wasn’t their fault. They just didn’t know.

But I had the benefit of living in the Memphis area and hosting a radio show here — which allowed me to have better grasp of where Smith messed up, and why Hardaway was the person best equipped to fix the program for which he was once starred before becoming a First Team All-NBA guard. I predicted Smith’s demise roughly a year before he was fired. Things unfolded almost exactly how I imagined they would.

Recruiting hit a modern-era low under Smith, attendance hit a 48-year low, and Memphis President Dr. M. David Rudd estimated his men’s basketball program lost $4.7 million in Smith’s final season largely because season-ticket sales dropped to 4,115. As I wrote at the time, Hardaway was, if nothing else, a lock to fix the attendance issues, financial issues and recruiting issues facing Memphis. It’s why he had to be hired. He then spent his first year significantly increasing season-ticket sales, donations and attendance.

Now the recruiting issues are fixed too.

Friday’s addition of 5-star forward Precious Achiuwa, combined with a recent commitment from 4-star guard Boogie Ellis, combined with signed letters of intent from 5-star center James Wiseman, 4-star guards Lester Quinones and Damian Baugh, 4-star forward DJ Jeffries and 4-star center Malcolm Dandridge — not to mention a pledge from Little Rock grad-transfer Rayjon Tucker — has given Memphis the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, according to 247Sports. It also means the Tigers will be the only team in college basketball next season with two projected top-10 picks (Wiseman and Achiuwa) in the 2020 NBA Draft, according to ESPN’s latest mock Draft.

It’s why Memphis is No. 6 in the 2019-20 Top 25 And 1.

Will the Tigers live up to those expectations?

I obviously can’t say for sure — though when you’re more talented at basically every position than almost everybody in your league, as will be the case for Memphis in the AAC, it’s hard to lose too often. And for those still questioning Hardaway as a coach, I suppose that’s fair because his career remains young. But it should be noted that he inherited a program from Smith that finished 161st at KenPom in 2018 and guided it to a top-60 finish in 2019. So Hardaway hardly embarrassed himself on the sideline in his first year, and his team, for whatever it’s worth, improved as the schedule unfolded, according to every metric.

Either way, to focus now on any of that stuff, or on what may or may not happen next March, is to miss the point entirely, because the point is this: Penny Hardaway, in a span of 14 months, has done exactly what he was hired to do. He fixed Memphis’ financial problems. He fixed Memphis’ attendance problems. And, boy oh boy, has he ever fixed Memphis’ recruiting problems by beating the likes of Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina and Arizona for various prospects. In the process, Hardaway has proven to be much more than just the “AAU coach” so many dismissively labeled him when he was hired. What he’s actually done, in short order, is return Memphis to the national conversation and establish himself as an undeniable force in the sport.

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