Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway’s last seven months: 13 new players, five new coaching staff members, three exhibition games in the Dominican Republic, one ongoing eligibility fight with the NCAA, one suspension over recruiting violations from 2021, and one 4-star recruit facing nine felonies.
Offseason? What offseason?
After the disappointing upset NCAA tournament loss to Florida Atlantic in March, the Tigers kept barreling ahead. Players and staff members came and went for months − and it might not be over. DeAndre Williams may or may not be back in a Memphis uniform. Mikey Williams, despite facing nine felony charges and a trial scheduled to begin in mid-December, still has designs on being a Tiger this season.
But the actual 2023-24 season begins Monday (6 p.m.) when Jackson State visits FedExForum. Before that, though, let’s examine some of the more pressing questions facing Hardaway’s Tigers as he enters Year 6 as coach.
Do the Tigers need DeAndre Williams to make a deep NCAA tournament run?
What began as a tantalizing prospect has become painstakingly agonizing.
Williams thought his collegiate career was over way back in March. The 6-foot-9 all-AAC power forward, who averaged 17.7 points and 8.2 rebounds per game last season, was honored on Senior Day and participated in the Portsmouth Invitational. Then, it came to his attention that there might be a way he could play another season at Memphis.
In the only statement he has made publicly since March, Williams made it clear he wants to return. That was in May. Since then, his request for reconsideration was denied. A formal waiver request was also denied. Memphis has appealed the most recent rejection. The NCAA’s decision still could go either way.
As far as what getting Williams back would mean for the Tigers, that part is crystal clear. Bringing back an All-American candidate and adding him to an already stout roster would raise the ceiling tremendously.
But what about that already stout roster? Is there enough already in place for Memphis to make a deep NCAA tournament run if Williams’ comeback attempt ultimately falls short?
Obviously, the Tigers would be heavy favorites to make some big noise in March with Williams. But, “need” feels like a reach. Hardaway already has assembled a roster capable of doing big things. Four of the five projected starters averaged 13 points or more last season, while the fifth put up 8.7 points and 3.4 assists per game at Alabama. Hardaway also might have the deepest bench he’s ever had.
So, while it would make life a lot easier, Memphis does not need DeAndre Williams to get past the first weekend.
Well, that depends − on several factors.
The most obvious one is Jahvon Quinerly himself. The former Alabama point guard by way of Villanova has the tools. He has the moxie. He has the experience. By all rights, Memphis should be his team this year.
And it could be. But, a few questions.
Is he healthy (and can he stay healthy)? Quinerly tore the ACL in his left knee during an NCAA tournament game in March 2022. Even though he made a remarkably quick return, things weren’t quite the same for a while. But Quinerly was well enough eventually to be named the SEC’s co-Sixth Man of the Year last season. Some still wonder, though. Quinerly missed the Tigers’ home exhibition opener against Lane College on Sunday with what Hardaway described as “a little hyperextension.”
There’s also the matter of the star power surrounding Quinerly. Can he be the bona fide leader of a team that also features the likes of Caleb Mills, David Jones, Jaykwon Walton and Jordan Brown?
In other words, it’s probably too soon to say the Tigers will be anyone’s team this season. It could very well end up being a different player on any given day.
Can Penny Hardaway keep everyone happy?
On that note, the flip side of the proverbial double-edged sword is the fact that Memphis has a lot of mouths to feed.
Top to bottom, the Tigers’ projected starting lineup is made up of five transfers. Each one is coming from a situation in which they were either the centerpiece or, at least, a co-star. Having five players like that on the same team can be tricky. Hardaway has been through it before. In 2021-22, he had Emoni Bates, Jalen Duren, DeAndre Williams, Landers Nolley, Tyler Harris and Lester Quinones. And we all remember the drama that followed that team.
It won’t be easy keeping everyone happy this time around, either. Even Hardaway has acknowledged that. In recent interviews, he has seemed cautiously optimistic − emphasis on “cautiously.” But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Just win and it probably won’t be an issue.
What do the Tigers have to do in non-conference play to avoid another 8-9 game?
It’s great that Memphis has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments. It’s not great that the Tigers have been in the dreaded 8-9 first-round game both times.
In an effort to fix that (and offset a weakened AAC schedule that wasn’t exactly super strong anyway), Hardaway put together a formidable non-conference schedule. How the Tigers fare against the likes of preseason No. 15 Texas A&M, Missouri, Virginia, Michigan and others will factor heavily into their NCAA tournament seeding prospects next March.
Memphis also will face Clemson, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and VCU. It might see Arkansas, North Carolina, Villanova or Texas Tech at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas. If the Tigers want to avoid another 8-9 matchup out of the gate at the NCAA tournament, they will need to go into AAC play with at least eight wins.
What is a realistic expectation for the Tigers in the new-look AAC?
Dominance. Even though the league’s coaches gave FAU its Final Four flowers and picked the Owls to finish ahead of Memphis, the expectation should be nothing short of an AAC title.
That’s not to say it will be easy. FAU, Tulane, UAB and North Texas won’t be pushovers. But Memphis needs to dominate the AAC. And, realistically, it should. Anything short of a 15-3 mark in conference play would be pretty disappointing.
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This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Five burning questions for Memphis basketball ahead of season opener