A year ago this week, after paying Josh Pastner $1.25 million to (please) take the Georgia Tech job, Memphis offered Tubby Smith a five-year, $15.45 million contract to coach its men's basketball team. He accepted. And what Smith then inherited was a program featuring four former top-100 recruits (Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson, Markel Crawford, Nick Marshall) and another top-100 prospect (Charlie Moore) signed to a national letter of intent.
But it's pretty bad now.
Marshall transferred to a junior college last offseason while Moore instead enrolled at California, where he averaged 12.2 points and 3.5 assists this season. Now Crawford and both Lawsons -- that's the Tigers' three leading scorers and rebounders -- have announced they're also transferring, meaning there are six Memphis players who have said they're transferring since the end of this season. Only two players (Jeremiah Martin and Jimario Rivers) are set to return. Which led Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen to release the following statement Tuesday morning:
"While student-athletes deciding to leave our university has been difficult to watch, it has not surprised us. Across the country, more than 700 Division I men's basketball student-athletes transferred last year. That record number of transfers is expected to be eclipsed again this year as this trend continues to grow."
Two problems here.
1. Last week Smith said he was "surprised" by the Lawsons' transfer. So Bowen's statement totally contradicts Smith's statement. How does he not realize that?
2. Though there are indeed roughly 700 Division I men's basketball transfers each year, it's important to remember there are 351 Division I men's basketball programs. So that comes to an average of basically two transfers per school per year. Again, Memphis has six this year -- including its three best players. So what's happening at Memphis isn't merely a reflection of what's happening around the country. To suggest otherwise is at best bad spin. At worst, it's just a dumb lie.
Either way ... wow.
What a mess.
And who could've ever imagined the same program that averaged 34.3 wins from 2006 through 2009 -- and the same program that played for the 2008 national championship -- would be reduced to beating mid-major schools for junior college prospects just to fill a roster? Answer: Not me. But here we are thanks to a string of bad decisions -- most notably how Smith decided to handle the "Keelon Lawson situation" he inherited from Pastner.
For those unfamiliar, here's a refresher: Keelon Lawson is a former state-championship-winning high school coach and the father of four elite players -- namely Dedric, K.J., Chandler and Johnathan. Pastner hired him as a full-time assistant in July 2014. Unsurprisingly, Dedric and K.J. subsequently enrolled at Memphis. That was part of the deal. And when Pastner left last April for Georgia Tech, Keelon Lawson swears Bowen told him he would remain on staff as a full-time assistant no matter who Memphis hired. But that didn't happen. Because Memphis hired Smith, who demoted Lawson to a made-up position called director of player development.
Publicly, Keelon Lawson said the right things.
Privately, he felt wronged.
Which led to Dedric and K.J. -- who combined to average 31.5 points, 18 rebounds and 6.1 assists this season -- last week announcing a transfer. Early Monday,. And when I asked Keelon Lawson on Monday if Dedric and K.J. would still be Tigers if he were still a full-time assistant, he answered, "Yes. Of course." In other words, Smith's decision to demote Keelon Lawson cost Memphis two players Kansas can't wait to use to win another Big 12 title. And do you know how many top-100 recruits Smith's three full-time assistants have committed? Zero. Not one. But they are scheduled to soon host a prospect who is currently committed to a Division II school. And I'm not even making that up.
Bottom line, in less than a year on the job, Smith has lost four former top-100 prospects to the transfer market and added zero top-100 prospects to replace them. And he burned his most valuable bridge to the fertile Memphis recruiting base when he demoted Keelon Lawson -- who, in addition to being Dedric and K.J.'s dad, is also the father of a top-25 prospect in the Class of 2019, the father of a top-10 prospect in the Class of 2021 and the uncle of a top-10 prospect in the Class of 2019. If Keelon Lawson never did anything but secure commitments from prospects related to him, he would've eventually enrolled five top-55 national recruits, four of whom will likely go down as McDonald's All-Americans. Plus, because his younger sons play for Team Penny, a summer program based in Memphis, NCAA rules would not have forbidden Keelon Lawson from being in the gym for Team Penny practices and games during times when no other college assistant would've had access. This is what having Keelon Lawson on staff meant for Memphis. He would've enrolled his sons and could've enrolled his nephew all while providing an inroad to the rest of the local talent. Now, that's over. And Memphis will instead spend the next week trying to convince a player to pick the Tigers over Ouachita Baptist.
"Coach Smith and I are extremely optimistic about the future of our program," Bowen said in Tuesday's statement.
And I guess that's what the AD is supposed to say.
But what's the source of optimism?
The most talented players in the Memphis program are leaving and being replaced by so-so junior college recruits and sub-100 high school prospects. The father of two likely future McDonald's All-Americans just moved his older sons to Kansas, which is a good sign Memphis won't be able to recruit the younger sons, i.e., those likely future McDonald's All-Americans. And the father of the area's top prospect, D.J. Jeffries, publicly put the coaching staff on blast last week.
"[Smith] is not aggressive enough," Corey Jeffries told the Commercial Appeal. "He doesn't come hard enough. You may have a chance, but you got to show interest. If you're not aggressive, you're not going to get these kids. We're not getting the attention from Memphis that we're getting from others."
Does that sound like a reason to be optimistic?
Tubby Smith, to be clear, is a good coach and a good man who has taken five different schools to the NCAA Tournament. So it's not impossible to envision him eventually getting Memphis there, too -- in two or three years. But Memphis fans have never been much interested in enrolling three-star prospects and trying to be good. Memphis fans have forever supported a program that enrolls four-star and five-star prospects and tries to be great. And, with few exceptions, the historical key to doing that has been to recruit Memphis.
Smith was set up to do this well.
He had a man related to the best Memphis players and prospects on staff. But he demoted him for no good reason. And now he has a self-inflicted disaster on his hands -- one that might ultimately prove too much to overcome.