MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On the eve of the start of official practices, in a small room here just inside the Laurie-Walton Family Basketball Center, Memphis coach Penny Hardaway met with the media this week and discussed for what wasn’t the millionth time, but sure felt like it, the possibility of starting five freshmen.
“If five freshmen earn those spots, I would have no problem with it,” Hardaway said. “It’s just [going to come down to] who is going to be the best at that position for us to win. … They’re going to battle it out in practice. And if it’s five freshmen [who end of starting], I don’t have a problem with that.”
That answer, more or less, is the same answer Hardaway has consistently given since he became the first man in 11 years not named Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari to secure the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. But the truth is that the second-year coach tipped his hand during a preseason trip to the Bahamas when he started four freshmen — Damion Baugh, Boogie Ellis, Lester Quinones and DJ Jeffries — alongside redshirt-sophomore Lance Thomas in each game while his two most heralded freshmen — James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa, both of whom are projected lottery picks — were sidelined for different reasons. (Wiseman was injured; Achiuwa had a visa issue.) For those unfamiliar with the Memphis roster, Thomas is a frontcourt player just like Wiseman and Achiuwa. So unless you think Hardaway is planning to bring a projected lottery pick off the bench — FYI, he’s not — it’s reasonable to assume that, barring a surprise, Memphis will start three of the freshmen who started in the Bahamas with Wiseman and Achiuwa.
Memphis will probably start all freshmen.
It’s a rare thing in college basketball.
Everybody obviously remembers Michigan’s Fab Five and also knows that Kentucky and Duke, in recent years, have been heavily reliant on freshmen. But do you know how many high-major teams have actually predominantly started five freshmen in a season?
- 1991-92 Michigan
- 2013-14 Kentucky
- 2017-18 Kentucky
That’s it. Just three.
In the history of college basketball.
The remarkable thing is that only one of those three teams — 2017-18 Kentucky — started five freshmen in the season-opener. And did you realize the Fab Five didn’t actually become an all-freshmen starting lineup until the 19th game of the 1991-92 season? It took a while for Steve Fisher to commit to it — which means Hardaway will become just the second men’s basketball coach in history to start five freshmen in a season-opener if he does so on Nov. 5 when the Tigers host South Carolina State inside FedExForum.
The history of starting five freshmen is interesting.
The three teams that have done it combined to go just 33-21 in conference games. None of them won their league. None of them earned better than a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. So the idea that things went smoothly from start to finish isn’t accurate. But all three did advance to the Sweet 16. And two of them — 1991-92 Michigan and 2013-14 Kentucky — actually made it all the way to the championship game of the NCAA Tournament.
So what does this mean for Memphis?
It’s honestly hard to say because of the league affiliation.
Unlike the 1991-92 Michigan, 2013-14 Kentucky and 2017-18 Kentucky teams, Memphis won’t be playing in a traditional power conference that will routinely present the kinds of challenges those teams faced. It’s a fact that cuts both ways. On one hand, if the Tigers are uneven early like most super-young teams, they won’t have the same opportunities to improve their body of work late that a Big Ten or SEC school has because they play in the AAC, where zero schools besides Memphis appear in the. On the other hand, though, the lack of depth in the AAC suggests the Tigers should be less vulnerable than the other teams that started five freshmen because they’ll have more talented players than their opponent at every position in most conference matchups. So regardless of whether 2019-2020 Memphis turns out to be better than 1991-92 Michigan, 2013-14 Kentucky or 2017-18 Kentucky, odds are these Tigers will enter Selection Sunday with a superior record simply because of the schedule they’re playing.
Either way, a fascinating season is on tap.
A second-year coach enrolled the top-ranked recruiting class and has multiple players projected to go in the lottery of the 2020 NBA Draft, according to . If things go well, it’ll be among the biggest stories in the sport. And if they don’t, well, it might be even bigger.