There have been many outstanding teams throughout the 68 years of what we know as Memphis (State) Tiger Basketball. The program boasts the 26th highest winning percentage in NCAA history, 18 conference champions, 11 conference tournament champions, 3 trips to the Final Four, and – according to ESPN’s Stats and Information Department – the 19th most successful basketball program from 1962 to 2012.
In those 50 years, three legendary teams emerged. The 1972-73 squad who lost the championship to UCLA, the 1984-85 Final Four team who succumbed to eventual champ Villanova, and the record-setting 2007-08 group of Tigers who should have beaten Kansas in the NCAA title game.
These three teams stand out as the best in Memphis history. Others have staked a claim of existing in that same rarefied air, but bad matchups, poor officiating, and lady luck herself have all conspired to keep them from reaching their full potential.
There’s a good debate to be had on the other seven spots for the Top 10 Tiger Basketball Teams of All-Time. Everyone’s rankings would be different for varying reasons. However, any discussion should be tabled until the end of the 2021-22 season. Because Penny Hardaway might have just assembled the greatest Tiger team in history.
He has fortified the veteran core of a championship team with high school phenoms, a coaching genius, and has established the culture of what he wants Tiger basketball to become. In his previous three seasons as coach, he has only had one offseason with his players in which he could install schemes and teach offensive concepts, and that season was the Wiseman/Covid debacle.
This year, the staff had all summer to work with a unit that Hardaway has called “the most complete team” he’s had in terms of “knowing what we’re doing on both sides of the ball.”
When comparing this potential of this year’s squad to the ‘Big Three,’ a few commonalities become apparent. Obviously, this team hasn’t taken the floor in a regular-season contest yet, but considering the foundation Penny has laid and the additions to the roster and staff, sensible projections can be deduced.
Five primary components will provide the Tigers with an opportunity to not only be the greatest Tiger team of All-Time, but also a historic one in the annals of NCAA basketball. For a program that plays outside of the Power 5 conferences, it all begins with…
Penny understands that the Selection Committee and the rest of the talking heads have no regard for the AAC. This is ultimately what kept them from receiving a bid to the NCAAs last season. In order to earn respect, Memphis will have to take advantage of the games scheduled against perceived upper echelon teams from the Power 5.
The Tigers will play three pre-season Top 25 teams, five projected Tournament teams, 13 games against the KenPom pre-season top 62 and will have seven opportunities for possible Quad One wins. In the regular season, the ’08 squad played against four top 25 teams and eight who finished in the top 61 of the KenPom rankings, going 7-1.
This is comparable because C-USA was also considered a lesser conference. Houston is the only conference opponent with a KenPom ranking higher than 60. If the Tigers take advantage of their early-season opportunities, then take care of business in conference, a high seed awaits.
Only once has Memphis received at least a 4-seed and not advanced to the Sweet 16. The higher the seed, the better the chances of making the final weekend. And to win four consecutive games in the tournament, teams need…
Joining the six players returning from an NIT Championship team that finished 14-3 in their last 17 games, is the second number one recruiting class Hardaway has signed in three years. Led by 5-star prospects Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren, the group also features five four-star prospects, including freshman Josh Minott and transfer Earl Timberlake.
Penny has added athleticism, size, and long-range shooting to a team that ranked 11th in the NCAA in total rebounds per game and has three returning players who shot a combined 41% from the 3-point line.
NBAdraft.net has Duren and Minott as projected lottery picks in next year’s draft. For the class of ’23, Bates is predicted as the number three pick and Lester Quinones as a second-rounder. And if the Tigers perform to their capabilities, the NBA will potentially be giving looks to Landers Nolley, DeAndre Williams, and one, or both, of the Lawsons.
The ’08 and ’85 teams each had four players who were NBA draft picks. As the old saying goes, ‘It’s not the X’s and O’s, it’s the Jimmy’s and Joe’s,’ and the Tigers have an abundance of…
With 15 players who could earn meaningful minutes, this may be the deepest Tiger team in history. All are skilled and have length, with 12 of the 15 having an average height of 6’8”. It’s not a stretch to say Penny’s team is three-deep at every position.
This type of depth is a luxury most coaches can only dream of. It is an advantage in that it allows for multiple offensive and defensive schemes and an insurance policy in case of injuries.
Offensively it provides options in case of cold shooting and opportunities to play at a pace that will exhaust teams with a shorter bench. A pace that can be dictated by a never-ending wave of tall, athletic defenders that can switch on every screen, pressing and trapping on each inbound and jumping any possible passing lane.
Memphis played at the 6th fastest pace in the NCAA last year, and Hardaway has stated he wants the Tigers to be the fastest team in the country. With the excess of talent he has accumulated, it’s an achievable goal.
When a team is blessed with the depth that the Tigers have this season, it also needs good leadership to keep egos in check and everyone vested in what’s good for the team. That starts with…
In three years of coaching Division 1 college basketball, Anfernee Hardaway has amassed a 66% winning percentage, averaged 21 wins a season, and is 5-1 in the postseason with an NIT Championship. Those are good, if not impressive, numbers for the first three years of his career, but there is room for improvement.
His teams have been ranked near the bottom in offensive efficiency and are just 2-12 against the Top 25 (seven of those losses were in his first year). Looking to address these deficiencies, he hired Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown and NBA Champion Rasheed Wallace to join his staff as assistants.
Wallace will provide the big men with fundamentally sound footwork and positioning near the rim, as well as an air of toughness that has been sorely lacking. Coach Brown will provide a little bit of everything.
During the 1980s Brown spent seven years coaching in the NCAA. He won big at Kansas and UCLA, making three Final Fours, and winning a National Championship. And Tiger fans remember how difficult it was playing his SMU teams from 2012-2016.
He also won over 1,000 games as an NBA head coach, making the playoffs 18 times and winning it all with the Detroit Pistons in 2004. Penny played for him when he was with the Knicks. It was a short stint, but one that had a lasting impact.
He had wanted to hire him since he first got the job, and the reasons are obvious. There isn’t a situation Brown hasn’t encountered before and is a brilliant basketball mind. With Brown at his side, Penny has an amazing resource at his disposal that will only enhance his own coaching abilities.
Having an experienced coaching staff with a clear philosophy is crucial in the postseason. Gene Bartow, Dana Kirk (with assistant Larry Finch), and John Calipari are clear examples. However, Hardaway’s staff may turn out to be better because of one main factor…
Another old chestnut is ‘Defense wins Championships.’ At the very least, it provides an opportunity for one. The ’08 team gave up 61 points per game on 39% shooting. The ’85 team, 63 points on 42%. And the ’73 team 75 points on 44% (which is skewed by Bill Walton’s otherworldly performance in the title game).
Penny clearly believes this adage because defense has been his mantra since coaching East to multiple State Championships. His first year on the job at Memphis, the Tigers finished first in the country by allowing teams to shoot just 36% per game.
Last year’s squad was again one of the best in college basketball. They ranked fifth in the country in defensive field goal percentage, giving up just 38% per game, and averaged 4 blocks and 8 steals. Teams were limited to 62 points on 55 field goal attempts and grabbed a mere 32 rebounds a game against Memphis.
It’s almost inconceivable that with Brown and Wallace providing input to enhance Penny’s philosophies, this year’s team could be even better on the defensive side of the floor. And it probably will be.
Brown is one of the most revered defensive minds in all of basketball. The Pistons title team he coached that featured Wallace was impossible to score on. They made everyone look ugly. ‘Sheed was a ferocious defender and never backed down from anyone.
With those new perspectives, plus the depth and athleticism the Tigers possess, teams will be fortunate to score over 50 a game. That kind of defensive capability and tenacity leads to deep tournament runs. This is why Penny has said their goal is to be the best defensive team in the country.
An opportunity for up to 38 wins, with NBA talent on a roster that is three-deep, coached by a Hall of Fame staff that emphasizes record-setting defense, is in front of the Tigers this season. If they seize it, Memphis will have a championship, and there will be no question as to the best Tiger team of All-Time.
It all starts on November 9, and no matter what, it’s going to be a blast. Because we’re going all the way, let’s fight for the Blue and Gray and say, “Go Tigers, Go!”
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