MEMPHIS, Tenn. — By the time he went live on Instagram on Wednesday afternoon to announce his college decision, most people who follow recruiting even a little already knew Moussa Cisse would be. So the words coming from his mouth were hardly a surprise. But, still, Tiger fans celebrated.
On social media.
In every zip code both inside of the city and also on the outskirts — because that’s the way significant recruiting news resonates in Memphis, where fans have been yearning for something to cheer after last year’s heralded recruiting class didn’t create the kind of dream season so many expected, largely because the prize of that class, five-star center James Wiseman, ran into NCAA issues before he quit the team the week before Christmas. When that happened, the Tigers’ ceiling was lowered. And when that development was followed by D.J. Jeffries suffering a season-ending knee injury in the final week of January, the ceiling was lowered even further because good college teams that lose two of their top three scorers before the calendar flips to February always become average college teams very quickly.
So, yeah, the whole thing was disappointing.
But optimism reentered the Memphis program Wednesday the moment Cisse, a five-star center in the Class of 2020, committed to the Tigers over offers from Florida State, Georgetown, Georgia, Kentucky and LSU. The 6-foot-11 likely one-and-done talent averaged 18.4 points, 15.3 rebounds and 9.2 blocks last season at Lausanne Collegiate School, located just seven miles from the Memphis campus. And when you talk to recruiting analysts, or NBA scouts, what they’ll tell you is that Cisse has a chance to be the best rim-protecting big in college basketball as a freshman, which suggests the Tigers could be even better defensively next season than they were last season when their adjusted defensive-efficiency rating ranked fifth nationally. That’s among the reasons I moved Memphis to No. 25 in the Top 25 And 1.
Moussa Cisse is that kind of difference-maker.
And, yes, his commitment will undeniably get the NCAA’s attention.
For those unfamiliar, Cisse — who was born in West Africa but moved to New York in 2015 — relocated to Memphis before his junior year of high school just like Wiseman did, which has led some to predict this recruitment could cause problems for Memphis just like Wiseman’s did. And to that, I guess I’d say, who knows? The move is obviously unusual. But, either way, the official story is that Cisse relocated to improve his academics, which is why he enrolled at one of the best private schools in Tennessee. He’s been living with his legal guardian, William Anderson, a man who has had a relationship with Cisse since Cisse was in 8th grade. Anderson also happens to be the basketball coach at LeMoyne-Owen College, a Division II school that plays an exhibition against the Tigers annually inside FedExForum.
So will the NCAA ask questions?
They’ll want to know about the expenses connected to Cisse’s move. They’ll want to know who covered his tuition at Lausanne. They’ll likely examine the relationship between Hardaway and Anderson.
Lots of questions will be asked.
But as long as Cisse and the people around him have good answers — and after the Wiseman thing blew completely up, you’d have to assume, or at least hope, they will — the NCAA should ultimately clear Cisse for freshman eligibility, at which point the Tigers would have a roster talented and experienced enough to compete with Houston at the top of the American Athletic Conference.
Will this team get as much hype as last season’s team?
But there are lots of reasons to believe this season’s Memphis team will ultimately be better than last season’s Memphis team as long as everybody is healthy and eligible (because last season’s Memphis team did not stay healthy and eligible). So the smart money now has Penny Hardaway’s third season as the coach of his alma mater resulting in a trip to the NCAA Tournament, a place this proud program hasn’t been, believe it or not, since 2014.