In terms of immediate and nationally consequential recruiting impact, Penny Hardaway is the most successful hire in college basketball since John Calipari took over at Kentucky in 2009.
That reality materialized Tuesday afternoon when big man James Wiseman, the No. 1 overall player in the 247Sports Class of 2019 Composite rankings, pledged to Hardaway and his hometown Memphis Tigers. From embarrassing attendance numbers to declining ticket sales to strike out after strike out in recruiting, no program has turned its momentum for the better in quicker fashion than the Tigers.
As far as I can tell, it's also the first time a player has committed to a program by introducing a rhinestone-like unicorn to reveal their announcement.
It's a dramatic, poetic, fitting coincidence that Hardaway and Calipari were put on this collision course. And it's pinching irony that Calipari was shut out from landing the No. 1 prospect for the seventh straight year by none other than his former school. That's right: Kentucky hasn't landed the top player in a class since Nerlens Noel in 2012.
Calipari's drought would have likely ended if Hardaway, who was Wiseman's high school coach, was never hired by Memphis. Wiseman seemed Lexington-bound had the Tigers kept on Tubby Smith or brought in just about anyone else who wasn't the greatest basketball player in the history of the city and its flagship university.
Evan Daniels of 247Sports wrote recently that "it's my belief that this recruitment would have been over a long time ago and [Wiseman] would have landed at Kentucky" were it not for Hardaway getting to Memphis. The idea that Cal-as-UK-coach would be outmaneuvered for a five-star player (let alone a sure-thing one-and-done and the No. 1 player in his class) by anyone wearing a Memphis polo was unthinkable ... until March 21, 2018: the day the University of Memphis officially brought Hardaway home. But obviously Calipari -- who hauls the No. 1 or No. 2 class annually as reliably as the changing of the seasons -- is still sitting at the head of the table, opposite Mike Krzyzewski, when it comes recruiting the best of the best.
As of Tuesday, however, Hardaway has a claim for chasing the throne. He's unquestionably pulled up a chair at the table. The 47-year-old has a long way to go, but this is an incredible opening seven months for Hardaway and his staff. Memphis is in the midst of one of the most aggressive and impressive makeovers college hoops has seen in the past decade.
First, Hardaway wasted little time in changing the perception of Memphis, and ever since late March it's been cresting to this. Wiseman-to-Memphis was the get. This is history-making. This is how you truly alter the trajectory of a program, a fan base and the energy of a city that's aching for a storybook comeback. Hardaway is the first man to ever land the No. 1 overall prospect in the same calendar year that he got his first coaching job. This isn't serendipity, either. Memphis plummeted as a program the past two seasons. The brass at that school knew the best bet on saving the Tigers was to fire Smith and bring in the most beloved basketball player in the city's history.
Memphis isn't back just because Hardaway just happens to be from Memphis and the stars aligned. This was a coordinated, calculated effort that's already paying dividends that match most, if not all, of Calipari's best recruiting coups when he ran the Tigers' program.
The 7-foot Wiseman is now the sixth player who Hardaway previously coached at the grassroots and/or high school level who has committed to Memphis. Hardaway owns Bluff City. The walls are already built; next comes the moat. Consider: he's offered seven Memphis-area prospects scholarships to this point. All seven have committed to him.
It's a locally infused national takeover for the Tigers, who failed to secure a single commitment from a local prospect in the two previous seasons under Smith.
Wiseman's pledge moved Memphis' class up from No. 36 to No. 11 in 2019, according to 247 Sports. That's the highest the Tigers have been since 2015, when Josh Pastner brought in the No. 9 class. And there's still time to add more. Memphis had the No. 3 class in 2013 and the No. 2 class in 2010, which wound up being Calipari's farewell campaign.
Those are now the bars for Hardaway. Thanks to Wiseman committing, it's sure to help Memphis' ability to convince other five-stars from outside Tennessee to join the party.
Memphis' 2019 commits also feature four-star power forward D.J. Jeffries and three-star center Malcom Dandridge. The Jeffries connection was the hand Wiseman effectively tipped in the lead-up to his announcement. Wiseman's hometown decision is hardly a shock. The 247 Sports' Crystal Ball had Memphis at 92 percent in the hour before he made his announcement.
Context for all of this is backdrop to what's been happening with Wiseman's recruitment for months. Every decision along the way that Wiseman made has looked in favor of Hardaway. (One example being that Wiseman opted to stay local and play his senior season of high school basketball in Memphis.) Then there's this: Wiseman decided on his future hours before playing in a high school game against Jeffries, a former UK commit who balked in late July. It would've been a bad look -- basically college basketball's version of The Decision from LeBron James in 2010 -- if Wiseman announced Tuesday and spurned Memphis for Kentucky as those in his home city crammed in front of tens of thousands of televisions and waited for the news that, frankly, will probably outshine anything this season's Memphis team does on the floor.
Plus, consider the timing. If Wiseman had decided on Kentucky, he would've been better suited -- it would have made for a more comfortable existence, that is -- for him to wait until the later winter or early spring. That would've been after the conclusion of the high school season.
It's rare when Calipari has circumstances of a recruitment completely out of his control, but in retrospect it seems like that's exactly what happened here. Hardaway gets the job, the whole thing flips, and now Memphis is back to national relevance. It's a juicy storyline for the sport over the next year-plus. Perhaps it's the birth of a real recruiting rivalry, too. That'd be a good thing for college hoops.
In 2000, when Calipari was hired at Memphis, he was the great get who grew into the golden one in that city. But Hardaway is the Memphis basketball ideal and embodiment of the hope and civic pride that grow from that. He was a local folk tale long before he became a top-five NBA pick and one of the most entertaining and dynamic NBA stars of the '90s.
Now he's come home and is changing the landscape. Wiseman won't put on a Memphis uniform for a real game for almost another year, but the Tigers are already back.