MEMPHIS -- There are intriguing recruiting battles in college basketball every year -- some that involve regional rivals, others that feature big national brands and, of course, a few that are influenced by shoe company executives, according to the FBI. But I'm not sure the sport has ever seen anything quite like what's currently going down here in this hoops-crazed city on the Mississippi River.
James Wiseman is at the middle of it.
He's a 6-foot-11 center who is the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2019, according to 247Sports' composite rankings. Basically forever, he was considered a lock for John Calipari and Kentucky. But then So now Wiseman's recruitment is totally up in the air -- mostly because Hardaway has a strong relationship with Wiseman that's rooted in the fact that he spent the past year coaching the five-star phenom at East High in Memphis.
Calipari and Kentucky assistant Joel Justus were in Wiseman's home Monday. Hardaway and Memphis assistant Mike Miller were in Wiseman's home Wednesday. And how compelling is this? What we're watching here is the greatest Memphis coach ever (Calipari), who doubles as perhaps the greatest recruiter ever, battle for the nation's No. 1 prospect (Wiseman) against the greatest Memphis player ever (Hardaway), who is now the Memphis coach after spending the past year as the high school coach of the nation's No. 1 prospect (Wiseman). And it's all happening in Memphis -- where no sports figure is currently more popular than the new Memphis coach (Hardaway) who has totally reenergized the program in a matter of weeks, and where no sports figure, silly as it might seem to outsiders, remains less popular than the former Memphis coach (Calipari) who left for Kentucky in March 2009.
"It's beyond fascinating," said longtime recruiting analyst Evan Daniels. "And it's going to be a knockdown, drag-out war."
Trying to predict an outcome, at this point, is nothing more than a guessing-game -- evidence being how 16 different recruiting analysts employed in some form by 247Sports have already offered predictions ... and they're split right down the middle. Eight are predicting Kentucky. Eight are predicting Memphis. Nobody is predicting anything other than Kentucky or Memphis.
"Both of them are equal," Wiseman told 247Sports this week. "Nobody is really above the other one."
The reason this is so difficult to call is because there are a lot of moving parts and legitimate reasons for Wiseman to pick either school. I could easily make a compelling case for Kentucky or Memphis. In fact, I'll do that now ...
The case for Kentucky
The reason Kentucky makes sense is because it's Kentucky -- a program with an established track record of enrolling elite bigs (DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns) and bouncing them to the NBA after one dominant season. It's a chance to play in the SEC. It's a chance to play for a Hall of Fame coach. It's a chance to play for the school that's been recruiting Wiseman more intensely and longer than anybody. So, absolutely, Kentucky makes sense. If Wiseman picks the Wildcats, I'll understand.
The case for Memphis
The reason Memphis makes sense is because of Hardaway -- a man who first lured Wiseman to Team Penny on the Nike EYBL circuit, then convinced him to move from Nashville to Memphis and enroll at East High. You can't do that without a strong bond, and it's why Kentucky suddenly finds itself fighting a fight it wasn't going to have to fight until Memphis made a coaching change. Simply put, the previous Memphis staff had no shot of getting Wiseman to even consider Memphis. But this Memphis staff is in there deep and offering Wiseman the opportunity to play in his new hometown, for his former high school coach and with his high school friends and teammates -- among them Alex Lomax and, presumably, Malcolm Dandridge. So, absolutely, Memphis makes sense. If Wiseman picks the Tigers, I'll understand.
So what's next?
It's doubtful any other staff will spend much time on Wiseman because the best anybody other than Kentucky or Memphis can probably do is finish third in a recruiting battle literally everybody believes is destined to finish one of two ways. So I wouldn't expect many other coaches to be bouncing into town for in-home visits considering they'll almost certainly amount to a waste of energy and resources. Either way, Wiseman will now spend the spring and summer playing for the Bluff City Legends, formerly Team Penny, on the Nike EYBL circuit while Kentucky and Memphis coaches sit courtside and watch every dribble and dunk.
Eventually, he'll select one of those two schools.
And though the family has insisted reclassifying to the Class of 2018 and enrolling in a university in time to play college basketball next season is not something they're considering, I won't believe it's not an option for Wiseman until it's officially not an option for Wiseman because reclassifying, for lots of reasons, makes lots of sense.
To be clear, I'm calling nobody a liar.
I believe they believe what they're saying.
It's just that, at some point, if it hasn't happened already, Calipari and Hardaway are surely going to broach the subject because the dynamics surrounding Wiseman's high school situation have drastically changed. Remember, Wiseman is not from Memphis. He simply moved to Memphis, where his older sister is a student, to play for Hardaway at East High.
But Hardaway is no longer at East High.
So rather than play another season at East High for a new head coach, against players who can't compete with him while taking curriculum that's likely not challenging for a student of Wiseman's caliber, wouldn't it make more sense to graduate early and go ahead and get into college -- where the academics, competition and workouts are vastly superior? While acknowledging it's neither my business nor choice to make, it seems like a reasonable move under these specific set of circumstances. And the reason Calipari and Hardaway will likely eventually push for it, in some form, is because Wiseman's birthday is March 31, 2001.
He just turned 17.
Which means no matter when he graduates high school, this year or next, Wiseman won't be eligible for the NBA Draft until 2020, according to the current CBA, because he won't turn 19 until March 31, 2020. In other words, if either Kentucky or Memphis can convince Wiseman to reclassify, they'll be getting two seasons of college basketball from the No. 1 prospect in the nation.
How wild would that be?
And the sales pitch to encourage Wiseman to reclassify is a simple one, I think. It would go something like this: "You gain very little by spending another year at East High, where the coach you moved there to play for no longer works. You won't be challenged academically. You won't be challenged athletically. You'll likely look up in a year and be no different than you are right now. But if you go ahead and enroll in college, we'll get you on a college workout plan immediately. We'll get you on a college diet immediately. And we'll get you in college practices -- where you'll be surrounded by people who can push you and help you improve. You would then have two years at the high-major level to prepare for the NBA, which suggests you'd be better prepared for the NBA when you enter the league in 2020. And you'll have two years, as opposed to one, of playing on national television every week, which should help you build a bigger brand before you get to the NBA, which could literally be worth millions of dollars in endorsements. Beyond that, we know you're a bright kid and that school is important to you. So understand that this plan would give you two years, as opposed to one, to work toward a degree before you become a professional -- meaning you'd be at least half way toward a bachelor's degree when you enter the NBA Draft and thus in a better position to eventually be a college graduate."
If you're Wiseman, you'd have to at least consider that, right?
Again, I think so.
But if not, fine. Because what we've got here, regardless of whether Wiseman enters college in 2018 or 2019, is the most fascinating recruiting battle of the year and perhaps all-time, if only because there's never been anything like it. It's the greatest coach in Memphis history (Calipari) vs. the greatest player in Memphis history (Hardaway) for the nation's No. 1 prospect (Wiseman) who attends high school only 1.2 miles from the Memphis campus and just finished winning a state championship while playing for the new Memphis coach (Hardaway), who has such a strong relationship with the family of the nation's No. 1 prospect (Wiseman) that they moved from Nashville to Memphis last year.
The Wisemans already picked Penny Hardaway once.
Will they do it again?
Or will John Calipari prevail like usual?
As always, we'll see. But it's a fascinating story that'll be fun to watch unfold no matter how it ends. It's high-stakes stuff for the kid nicknamed "The Big Ticket." He swears neither Kentucky nor Memphis is above the other right now. But, eventually, one will have to be.