MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The announcement of James Wiseman’s 12-game suspension came from the NCAA earlier this week via a tweet that disappointed, if not devastated, most Memphis fans. This is, after all, the season they’d been looking forward to since the day Penny Hardaway was hired in March 2018 because it was obvious, even back then, that Hardaway’s second recruiting class would be a monster, one way or another, and likely lead to Wiseman, the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019, starring for the Tigers in what’s expected to be just one year of college. So for that season to now be underway, while Wiseman is sidelined because of a violation he knew nothing about, is undeniably, and understandably, deflating.
But you couldn’t tell Saturday.
Sure, folks are still angry — anxious to cheer anything anti-NCAA and applaud every #FreeWiseman sign they encounter. But for a little more than two hours inside a jam-packed FedExForum, the focus of the 17,875 fans was almost entirely on the game being played on the court instead of what was, at least temporarily, a court case. And the main takeaway from the 87-86 victory over Ole Miss is that the Tigers didn’t look like a team missing a five-star freshman as much as they looked like a team loaded regardless.
Wiseman, again, was not available. And Lester Quinones only played nine minutes before suffering what appeared to be a hand injury that sidelined him the entire second half — meaning the Tigers were actually down two starters for 31 minutes against Ole Miss. But they still had a five-star freshman in Precious Achiuwa — plus another freshman who initially committed to Kentucky (D.J. Jeffries) and another who initially signed with Duke (Boogie Ellis). And that, combined with solid performances from sophomores Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris, was enough to create a 16-point lead that Memphis never relinquished in a win over a likely NCAA Tournament team that entered undefeated and ranked 52nd at KenPom.
“It’s very encouraging,” Hardaway said after the game that got closer than he would’ve liked at the end but still qualified as a quality victory. “It’s hard to win at this level. So for us to have a 16-point lead on a really well-coached team that has veteran guards and veteran players, I mean, that’s amazing for us.”
Speaking of amazing, Achiuwa was.
“He locked in and never took his eyes off of it from the beginning of the game until the end,” Hardaway said after watching Achiuwa get 25 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in 32 minutes. “He showed who he really is to the country.”
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of that.
Achiuwa entered this season as the Tigers’ second-best prospect; he is, like Wiseman, a projected lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. And if Memphis is going to survive, or even flourish, in this 12-game stretch without its best talent, it was always going to be crucial that Achiuwa show he’s both a nice pro prospect and a great college player. On Saturday, against legitimate competition, he was a great college player.
Same goes for Jeffries.
The 6-foot-7 wing came off the bench, took 18 shots, made 10 of them and finished with 23 points and four rebounds. So he’s now averaging 14.0 points and 3.8 rebounds in 25.5 minutes per game — which suggests, at this rate, as long as Hardaway continues to keep him out of the starting lineup, Jeffries will be among the most productive sixth men in college basketball.
“Those two forwards [Achiuwa and Jeffries] are really talented,” said Ole Miss coach Kermit Davis. “They’re downhill players. … They’re competitive. … I was very impressed with those two young forwards.”
Bottom line, Saturday was a good day for Memphis. It’s been a rough week. But Saturday was a good day. The Tigers are clearly better, for obvious reasons, when Wiseman is available. But while he’s not it’s important for the players who are to win these games so that Memphis’ body of work is as debacle-free as possible when Wiseman returns. And, on Saturday, the Tigers looked capable of doing it.
An upcoming neutral-court game with NC State will be tricky, the road game at Tennessee will be tough, a home game against Georgia could pose problems, and traveling to Wichita State is never easy. Those are all games Memphis will play without Wiseman unless his suspension is reduced via appeal. That’s not ideal. But the encouraging thing for Hardaway is that, against Ole Miss, Memphis looked like it can win most of the remaining nine games of Wiseman’s suspension — and now something like 9-3 or even 10-2 is a totally reasonable record to shoot for during this 12-game stretch. Put another way, more than anything, Saturday’s effort was a reminder that Memphis didn’t just enroll the No. 1 recruit in the nation.
It also enrolled the No. 1 class in the nation.
And as long as the other heralded prospects in that class perform at a high level, like at least two of them did against Ole Miss, then coming out the other side of James Wiseman’s suspension in relatively good shape seems possible, if not likely.