If the skepticism was unfair, it wasn’t unfounded.
Penny Hardaway would find an incalculably warm welcome home at Memphis — an overwhelming dose of nostalgia, a lengthy honeymoon, the renewed excitement of a beleaguered fan base.
So had Chris Mullin, who left St. John’s with a 59-73 record and no NCAA Tournament wins in four years. So had Clyde Drexler, who left Houston with a 19-39 record. So had Eddie Jordan, who was fired after winning less than 30 percent of his games at Rutgers.
When Hardaway returned to campus last year, he’d never spent a day coaching above the high school level. Now, he’s set to unveil the country’s top-ranked recruiting class, making Memphis the first program besides Duke or Kentucky to accomplish the feat in over a decade.
“I don’t think it would’ve surprised me because I’m so confident in what I do,” Hardaway told The Post. “But it was kind of a perfect storm on this one, because we had the No. 1 player in the country in our own city and it kind of jump-started everything.”
Hardaway didn’t just have the projected top pick in the 2020 NBA draft — 7-foot-1 James Wiseman — in his hometown, but in his locker room.
Wiseman first played for AAU’s Team Penny, then starred for Hardaway at East High School in Memphis, where the four-time NBA All-Star won three straight state championships before returning to his alma mater.
John Calipari couldn’t compete with Wiseman’s mentor. Likely lottery pick Precious Achiuwa relegated Kansas and North Carolina to runners-up. DJ Jeffries backed out of his commitment to Kentucky. Boogie Ellis dropped his pledge to Duke. Lester Quinones and Damion Baugh rounded out what could be the second-ever all-freshman starting five to open a season (Kentucky, 2017-18).
The Tigers enter the season No. 14 in the AP Top 25 poll, earning a preseason ranking for the first time in six years.
“When you assemble this amount of talent at one time you want to maximize on it,” Hardaway said. “We might have these guys for just one year, so let’s try to maximize as much out of this as we can.
“I have the confidence that I think we can win [the national championship] for sure. … I can’t predict that we’re gonna win it. I can say that I want to win it. And I’m gonna say that every year.”
Hardaway, 48, is familiar with hype and brilliance and the frightening quickness with which limitless potential can evaporate.
The two-time All-American, who led Memphis to the 1992 Elite Eight, was on track to be a Hall of Famer and one-half of an NBA dynasty after reaching the NBA Finals with the Magic as a 23-year-old in his second season.
Barely a year later, Shaquille O’Neal ditched Orlando for the Lakers. By 1997, Hardaway suffered the first of several injuries to steal the athleticism and explosiveness that twice put the 6-foot-7 guard on the All-NBA first team and in Nike commercials and in the movie “Blue Chips.”
“At the end of the day, all of us are trying to get to the NBA and he’s an NBA legend,” Wiseman said this spring. “He taught me how to read the little different details in the game and how to approach the game well, and he really is developing me as a young man on and off the court.”
For less familiar recruits, Hardaway’s fleeting and powerful impact in the NBA is difficult to convey but considerable evidence is available.
“Obviously they didn’t see me play, but when we start talking, they start looking at me on YouTube and they start to give me more respect about what I do and what I’ve done,” Hardaway said. “They start to see pretty quickly who I was.”
He was an NBA player until 2008 and began coaching — at Lester Middle School in 2011 — only when his friend Desmond Merriweather was undergoing cancer treatment. There, Hardaway won a pair state titles. Then came another three at East High.
Even before the arrival of Memphis’ program-changing class, Hardaway provided hope.
Coaching the remains of Tubby Smith’s roster, Hardaway posted a 22-14 record in his first season and earned an NIT berth — while producing the largest attendance increase in the nation, from 6,225 to 14,065 per game.
Five years removed from Memphis’ most recent NCAA Tournament, Hardaway — who is allowing ESPN to shoot a season-long documentary — has the most hyped team in the nation, and the feeling his team is also overlooked.
Houston was picked by more coaches to finish first in the AAC preseason poll. Hardaway sees no team in the nation more talented, but more than a dozen are ranked ahead of his Tigers.
Even if Hardaway builds one of the country’s best programs, he may never have a more talented team.
“It’s coach talk when guys try to be so humble, even though [everyone] knows who they really have and they’re trying to be very modest,” Hardaway said. “That’s fine, but telling the truth is OK. If you feel like your team is pretty good and you feel like you can do some good things that year, the kids respond to that. They like having the coach to have their back and have belief in them.”
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