Equipped with potentially college basketball’s best roster, Memphis basketball embarks on a promising 2021-22 season.
Riley’s Ranking: 14th
No coach created more headlines in the latter half of summer than Penny Hardaway. In a two-month span, the Memphis frontman made splashes with both his coaching staff and his roster. First, he brought in coaching legend Larry Brown and NBA icon Rasheed Wallace as assistants. Next, he reeled in Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates, two top-5 recruits. With the star power in the Memphis program, it feels an awful lot like 2019 when Hardaway hired Mike Miller then promptly landed James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa. So, I must ask ya, Penny … *In my best Olivia Rodrigo voice* DO YOU GET DEJA VUUUUU?
But the deja vu should end with the offseason acquisitions. Unlike 2019, eligibility issues won’t hinder them, and the Tigers will almost certainly net Hardaway’s first NCAA Tournament berth. Considering their talent level, anything less than a top-4 seed would be disappointing.
A nightmarish pro-day aside, Bates steps in as the unquestioned alpha, thanks to his NBA-ready scoring ability. Whether he’s shooting off the bounce or attacking the basket, the 6-9 wing leaves his challengers gassed. The freshman burns defenses in a variety of ways. For instance, he creates separation with his tight handle and advanced footwork; he shakes his man with his stop-and-start quickness, and he smartly goes to a floater when defenders congregate in the lane. Moreover, while Bates’s 3-point shot is a work in progress, his elevation makes his jump shot hard to block.
Though Duren doesn’t come with quite the same hype as his freshman cohort, he still has future All-Star potential. At 6-10, 230, the Montverde product is an absolute unit, even before starting a college weightlifting program. On the court, Duren brings similar defensive fierceness to the departed Moussa Cisse. But his offensive game looks far more refined. He stays light on his feet to spin off defenders in the post, and when he establishes position, it’s lights out for the opponent.
But Duren doesn’t just rely on his athleticism — he shows off smart passing and is progressing with his jumper. However, his skill that will most immediately translate is his dominance on the boards. Last season, Memphis ranked 30th nationally in offensive rebounding rate; Duren’s presence may cause that number to climb even higher. With his springy second jump, don’t be surprised to see him lead the AAC in that category.
So with two highly touted freshmen, plus a background in AAU coaching, you may assume that Hardaway adopts a “roll the balls out” mindset. Nope.
Instead, over the past two years, Hardaway has emerged as one of the best defensive coaches in the sport. His pressure-heavy scheme propelled Memphis to a top-5 finish in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric each of the last two seasons.
For the Tigers, disorientation is the name of the game. A fullcourt press after a made basket, a midcourt trap into the boundary, a run-and-jump after an inbound pass — Memphis throttles teams with all of the above. Additionally, they protect the basket in the halfcourt with perfectly executed double teams and precise weakside rotations. (The Wichita Eagle did a fantastic job breaking down Memphis’ defense in this piece.)
Expect the defense to stay at an elite level with the return of senior forward DeAndre Williams. Eligibility questions caused the former Evansville star to miss the first seven games of last season. But upon entering the starting lineup, Memphis’ defense skyrocketed from 42nd nationally into the No. 1 spot (per Bart Torvik). Williams can guard the 3 through 5, and he holds his own when switching onto smaller guards. Plus, he wreaks havoc with his active hands, ranking 7th nationally in steal rate in 2021.
But Williams’ impact on the other end holds equal importance. Like Duren, he dominates the offensive glass, bursting off the floor to haul in loose balls. And his prowess around the basket commands double teams, which he then exposes with phenomenal passing.
The forward will spoon-feed dunks to Duren like they’re Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Along the perimeter, Memphis has two more top-notch defenders in Miami transfer Earl Timberlake and junior Lester Quinones. A former five-star recruit, Timberlake endured a horrific freshman season that lasted only seven games due to a shoulder injury. However, it’s hard not to notice his upside as a powerfully built playmaker on the wing.
Quinones, on the other hand, has a more projectable role after two seasons at Memphis. He’ll shine a souped-up glue guy who knocks down 3s, snares rebounds and squashes smaller guards with his strength.
Finally, there’s Landers Nolley, a 6-7 gunner who snipes from mid-range and distance. Although his scoring can be feast or famine, he provides game-breaking offense when he gets hot — for example, see his 27-point eruption versus Colorado State in the NIT semifinal.
With its depth and defense, Memphis’ floor remains high. But can they finally cut back on turnovers and poor shot selection? Those two factors could make the difference between a first-weekend exit and a Final Four run.
Guard play will impact these areas either positively or negatively. Senior Alex Lomax fits the team’s identity as a defensive stopper, but he offers little to no shot creation. Timberlake can play the 1, but his broken jumper might handicap him. And lastly, I have doubts about Bates as a jumbo point guard. However, Hardaway may have to live with the growing pains until it pays off.
Regardless, If the Tigers can manufacture something … anything … from its lead guard slot, well, Memphis fans may be the ones who get deja vu.
Projected starters: G – Emoni Bates (Fr.); G – Lester Quinones (Jr.); G/F – Landers Nolley (Jr.); F – DeAndre Williams (Sr.); F/C – Jalen Duren (Fr.)
Strengths: Defense; forcing turnovers; length; athleticism
Weaknesses: Lead guard play; turnovers
Best player: Bates
Breakout player: Quinones