It’s rare to see a team miss the NCAA tournament, lose four of its top seven players and then be considered a preseason top-10 team the following year.
But the 2021-22 Memphis Tigers are anything but common. While they did miss the NCAA tournament, they won the NIT and would have likely heard their name on Selection Sunday, had one of their one-possession losses to Houston in early March gone the other way. They did lose several key rotation pieces, but they reloaded in the spring with three Power-5 transfers — including potential first-round pick Earl Timberlake — and had a solid recruiting class featuring two ESPN 100 prospects.
And then came August, when Penny Hardaway went out and convinced Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren to reclassify from 2022 into 2021 and suit up for Memphis this season. Bates and Duren will be two of the most talented players in college basketball and are projected top-10 picks whenever they decide to enter the NBA draft.
Those additions have brought considerable expectations. The Tigers now have one of the most talented rosters in the country, and a likely preseason top-10 ranking to go along with it. You might say Memphis has been in this position before in 2019, when Hardaway brought in the No. 1-ranked recruiting class, led by top prospect James Wiseman, but was on track to miss the NCAA tournament prior to its cancellation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were extenuating circumstances that season — Wiseman’s suspension, myriad injuries — but the fact remains Hardaway has yet to reach the NCAA tournament in his three seasons at the helm. He now has a roster too talented to fail, with two marquee stars headlining the group.
In order to get a feel for how the pieces might fit and the potential issues Hardaway could face this season, we spoke with multiple American Athletic Conference coaches who faced Memphis the past few seasons and also watched Bates and Duren several times.
What’s hampered Memphis under Hardaway?
Memphis has won at least 20 games in each of the three seasons under Hardaway, but has not been to the NCAA tournament. Its issues are certainly not on the defensive end of the floor. The Tigers were the best defensive team in the country last season in adjusted defensive efficiency, and weren’t far off in 2019-20, ranking No. 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency, No. 1 in 2-point defense and No. 3 in 3-point defense.
“They’ve been elite defensively. They’re a pain in the ass to play against,” one AAC coach said. “They make the game difficult, they don’t let you run your offense. They take you out of what you want to do. They’re going to force other guys on your roster to make plays, so you better have multiple guys that can make plays and finish plays. They’ll take your best player out of a ball screen. They make your offense messy.”
“It just takes them a while to get the defense really humming,” another coach added. “Penny does not get the credit he deserves for how well those kids play defensively. They play hard, they play organized, they play a certain brand of defense.”
It’s been the offensive end of the floor where Memphis has struggled. The Tigers ranked No. 210 in adjusted offensive efficiency at KenPom.com in 2019-20 and, despite improvement last season, were still outside the top 100 nationally. Turnovers are the easy culprit, given Memphis has turned it over on around 22% of its possessions the past two seasons, which ranks toward the bottom of Division I. But The Tigers have also suffered from shot selection issues.
“Offensively, they just haven’t been great,” one opposing coach said. “They have guys doing NBA stuff, just trying to make plays. They have average shot selection, they have guys doing things that aren’t their strengths. I’m sure [newly hired assistant coach] Larry Brown will help with this, but offensively they get a little bit isolation-heavy and don’t play to their strengths. Then the other issue has been turnovers. They cough it up trying to make home run plays.”
How do Bates and Duren fit in and rectify those issues?
Given that Memphis’ success has been predicated mostly on the defensive end of the floor, let’s start there. Every coach we spoke with thinks Duren will make an immediate impact and slide seamlessly into the spot vacated by Moussa Cisse‘s transfer to Oklahoma State. Duren was one of the best shot-blockers and rebounders in the 2021 class and that should translate quickly.
“I think Duren fits really well. They lost Moussa Cisse and the way they play defense, trapping and making you scramble, they needed rim protection and size at the rim,” one coach said. “You get trapped, you have to reverse it and go make a play. The problem is you were shooting over [Precious] Achiuwa or Cisse and now it’s Duren. That was a huge, huge key for their defense. He’s a massive piece for them.”
Bates doesn’t have quite the same reputation as Duren on the defensive end, and he generated differing thoughts on how well he would fit into Memphis’ defensive system right off the bat.
“When I watched him, he didn’t look fluid defensively,” one coach said. “He hasn’t done the run and jump and press type of thing. Is he capable? Maybe.”
“Bates’ IQ is pretty high. High IQ dudes can defend. Especially with the way Memphis does it,” another coach said. “It’s not always black and white. They empower their kids to play free and play aggressive, within a framework and a concept. If he’s dribbling too close to the sideline, go get him. Bates will be good at that. He’s got an IQ, he’s got a feel. It will be interesting to see where the motor is. Does he have a defensive motor? I don’t know. That’s going to be the question.”
Offensively, Bates likely becomes the team’s No. 1 option from day one, the player with the ball in his hands in late-game, late-clock situations. Duren will provide a low-post option, and he will also make a huge impact generating second-chance opportunities.
“Bates is effortlessly talented on offense,” one coach said. “Three-level scorer. It comes really, really easy to him. He’s got some Durant-type stuff in that he’s such a good ball handler and the base of his game is making pull-up jumpers. When he’s rocking and rolling, he’s getting to spots off one or two bounces. Catch-and-shoot 3s is something he brings, his ability to get the rim is something he brings, but his deal is getting to sweet spots off one- and two-bounce pull-ups.
“Duren is a physical marvel,” the coach continued. “Big-time offensive rebounder. Big-time rim-runner. One-on-one, he’s a guy that just knows how to get the ball in the basket. He might have a little harder adjustment in college, just because he’s going to see double-teams. He’s going to see a lot of different coverages and things. And he’s going to be playing against older guys.”
Bates as a point guard?
In the weeks since Bates committed to Memphis, it has become clear that a big part of the Tigers’ recruiting pitch was their plan to use him at the point guard spot. Given that Bates is 6-foot-8 and Hardaway was a 6-foot-7 point guard, it makes sense.
But Bates has been known as a pure scorer and a lethal perimeter shooter during most of his high school career; creating for others has been an ancillary part of his skill set. He did show flashes of improved playmaking ability on the Nike EYBL circuit, averaging 2.7 assists — including a nine-assist performance in mid-July.
Unsurprisingly, opposing coaches were torn about the plan for Bates at point guard.
Emoni Bates puts on a scoring clinic as he goes for 36 points vs. Chet Holmgren and Team Sizzle.
“They run a lot of their stuff through the pinch post. All they really need is an entry pass,” one AAC coach said. “They get moving and cutting and they’re good at it. They’re really good at it. That’s not a hard sell for them. With what they do, it’s a Chris Paul-type of offense. Sometimes people think point guard, they think one guy with a tremendously high usage rate, feeding everybody else. When they were really good late in the year, when their offensive numbers were good, they let their forwards make a lot of decisions. DeAndre Williams, Malcolm Dandridge, they empowered a lot of those guys to make plays as passers.”
“[Bates] wasn’t a point guard in the settings I saw. I would need to see him more in a point guard setting,” another coach countered. “He’s a volume shooting scoring guard, a big wing. He’s good at that. He can really heat up and make shots. I just didn’t see him facilitating and coming off screens, making plays for other people. Point guards need to be able to score, but they also need to be able to make everyone around them better. I need to see more of that. He comes off a ball screen to shoot. Out of isolation, he’s thinking score.”
Biggest potential issues: Chemistry and role allocation
Talent and depth won’t be an issue for Memphis this season. The Tigers have three starters back, three other members of last season’s rotation, three Power-5 transfers, four ESPN 100 freshmen and two other incoming recruits.
How Hardaway pieces it all together — while keeping everyone happy — might determine how far Memphis goes this season.
“The problem they face is when minutes start getting divided, the shots start getting divided, guys aren’t happy with their roles,” one AAC coach said. “Timberlake, Emoni and Duren all think they’re going pro after this year. [DeAndre] Williams was the guy late in the year. [Landers] Nolley was the leading scorer. He’s going to want his shots. You’re not going to score 100 points a game, so someone in that group is going to be averaging six points and they’re not going to be happy.”
“They took off last season when less was more. Guys stopped looking over their shoulders,” another coach added. “How will they be when you’re cycling in Tyler Harris, you’re cycling in Earl Timberlake, you’re cycling back in [Alex] Lomax?”
One coach pointed out the Tigers got off to a slow start last season, losing to Western Kentucky and VCU in the first week of the season, but started rolling when Williams — the oldest and most experienced player on the team — became eligible; Memphis was 4-3 without him and 16-5 with him. With 10 players on this year’s roster having college experience, a faster start could have been expected.
“Before they got Bates and Duren, I thought Memphis was going to take a big step, because they’re attacking this thing with three- and four-year guys,” one coach said. “Guys that have been through the grind, the process, the journey. They’ve earned some good breaks. Alex Lomas, Lester Quinones, Landers Nolley II, Malcolm Dandridge.
“DeAndre Williams is their heartbeat, their emotional compass,” the coach continued. “He has such a selfless game. To me, he’s what solved a lot of their offensive stuff. He’s such a good playmaker, he simplified things. They’ve earned it. Those guys were a really good nucleus and good core, thought they would get them off to a good start in November and December.”
Despite the potential concerns, league coaches realize adding two lottery picks to a team that won the NIT and already reloaded via the transfer portal makes Memphis a formidable opponent this season. The defense likely isn’t going anywhere, and the Tigers should be more efficient and consistent on the offensive end with Bates and Duren in the fold.
One other thing: Hardaway didn’t just fortify his playing roster during the offseason. He added Hall of Famer Brown and NBA champion Rasheed Wallace to his coaching staff.
“Penny does a great job and Larry Brown is as good as it gets,” one coach said. “I know how much of a stickler he is with sharing the ball, moving the ball, making the extra pass, changing sides of the floor. If he can get those guys to buy in, they’re going to be really, really, really good. If they can get on the same page — and I’m sure they can. It’s a little easier when you have Penny and Larry Brown and Rasheed Wallace telling you to do it. If anyone can get it done, it’s that group.”
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