MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Attendance at Memphis games hit a 48-year low last season and, at times, there were fewer than 3,000 people inside FedExForum watching a team short on talent with no realistic hope of playing in the NCAA Tournament. Entire sections were, more often than not, almost completely empty. It was a sad and costly scene. And once the administration realized there was no reason to believe a third year with Tubby Smith would be any different than the second, a plan to replace him with Penny Hardaway was executed.
That plan, so far, is working on every level.
This weekend provided a reminder.
No, Memphis did not upset Tennessee early Saturday; the third-ranked Vols won 102-92 and were never seriously threatened. But what Memphis did do early Saturday is sell every ticket to a men's basketball game for the first time since March 7, 2009 -- which doubled as the final regular-season game John Calipari coached before leaving, a few weeks later, for Kentucky.
"For this team, fairly new, to sell the arena out, to sell the Forum out for a game like this, it just shows that everybody is buying in," Hardaway said. "I'm excited about that."
In fairness, Tennessee being the opponent contributed to the sellout, which is something Hardaway voluntarily acknowledged. But the point remains the same: A Memphis basketball game on Saturday looked the way a Memphis basketball game is supposed to look for the first time in a long time. As I tweeted pregame, this was nothing close, in terms of national hype, to the No. 1 vs. No. 2 game the Tigers and Vols played in 2008 because that Memphis team was undefeated with a future No. 1 pick (Derrick Rose) and this Memphis team is the byproduct of Hardaway inheriting a program in a bad place that will take at least a year to rebuild. But, that said, FedExForum still looked and sounded Saturday a lot like it did in 2008.
"The atmosphere was great," said Tennessee senior Admiral Schofield, who finished with 29 points and 11 rebounds just one game after getting 30 points and six rebounds in last Sunday's win over Gonzaga. "You could really feel the rivalry. It was a great stage."
Meantime, the top-rated prospect in the Class of 2019, James Wiseman, was on the front row just behind the Memphis bench. He's already signed with the Tigers and will be the centerpiece of a recruiting class that's currently ranked 13th nationally but is likely to improve considering Memphis has been labeled the leader for five-star forward Trendon Watford. In other words, Hardaway already has FedExForum back to looking the way it's supposed to look, and the next step is to get the on-the-court product back to looking the way it's supposed to look. There was no realistic way for him to do that in his first season given that he inherited a bad roster with zero former top-100 prospects. But the success Hardaway and his staff have already had on the recruiting trail suggests the roster will be in a good-enough place next season to ensure the Vols and Tigers are both ranked when they play in Knoxville.
Yes, Hardaway has lost as many games as he's won so far in his college-coaching career; I'll go ahead and highlight that so you're not compelled to tweet it my direction. But to focus on that, at this point, is to completely miss the big picture. Because the big picture is this: Penny Hardaway was hired to increase season-ticket sales, increase donations, increase attendance, improve recruiting and build a program that captures the city's attention and affection the way it always has when things are going well. And, undeniably, he's already done all of those things. He's checked every box before Christmas of his first season.
Saturday was proof.
No, Memphis did not upset Tennessee. But the top-ranked prospect in the Class of 2019, who will be a Tiger soon enough, was one of 18,528 fans filling FedExForum to capacity for the first time in more than a decade. Such a scene was unimaginable as recently as last season. But it was real life this weekend -- which means Memphis' plan to return its program to relevance is already working in every way such things are measured.