Hardaway, Wiseman puts Memphis back on the map

No. 1 hoops recruit uses unicorn to make college choice (1:13)

The No. 1 basketball recruit in the Class of 2019, James Wiseman, commits to Memphis, much to the delight of the crowd in attendance. (1:13)

This is why Memphis hired Penny Hardaway.

Yes, Hardaway will be asked to also win games at some point, but Tuesday, Nov. 20, was the first order of business for him.

And Hardaway answered the bell, as Memphis landed the No. 1 recruit in the 2019 class, 7-foot center James Wiseman.

Not only did Hardaway convince Wiseman to stay home and play for the Tigers in college, but he also beat out Kentucky and John Calipari -- arguably Memphis' all-time greatest coach and the sport's top recruiter over the past decade -- for the potential No. 1 pick in 2020. Kentucky had been the heavy favorite until March, when Memphis fired Tubby Smith and hired Hardaway, one of the program's greatest players of all time and a legend in the city.

There were questions when Memphis made the hire. Could Hardaway's coaching success on the high school and grassroots level translate to the college game? Would Hardaway's NBA experience and relationships with top high school players turn into highly-ranked recruiting classes at Memphis?

On the recruiting front, Hardaway was expected to compete with the blue bloods of college basketball for top-ranked prospects. He started swinging for the fences early, making Wiseman his top priority. When local five-star forward D.J. Jeffries decommitted from Kentucky in July, Memphis immediately moved into strong pursuit. Out-of-state five-stars like Trendon Watford, Matthew Hurt and Precious Achiuwa remain on the list.

But we've seen this story before. New coach gets hired, overpromises on the recruiting front, underdelivers when it comes to actually getting players, eventually fades away and is fired. Missouri's Kim Anderson was a prime example. When he took over the Tigers, they quickly began recruiting five-stars like Thomas Bryant, Antonio Blakeney and Isaiah Briscoe. They were fighting an uphill battle for all three and didn't get any of them. Three years and a 27-78 record later, Anderson was gone.

If Hardaway swung and missed on a few top targets in 2019, how much leeway was he going to get when it came to on-court results? Remember, he only received a three-year contract last spring -- not the usual five- or six-year deals most new coaches get.

But here was the biggest question when Hardaway was hired: Could he bring excitement back to the Memphis basketball program?

Under Smith, the Tigers weren't awful when it came to wins and losses. They finished 40-26 in his two years, going .500 or better each season in the American Athletic Conference. But that was only part of the problem. The enthusiasm was gone within the fan base. The average attendance at home games reportedly dropped to 6,000 -- about 10,000 fewer than under Josh Pastner. It wasn't that high-level recruits weren't coming to Memphis anymore; they weren't even considering the TIgers. The top players from Memphis were leaving the city for college in droves. The Memphis fan base wants top recruits, it wants wins, and it wants buzz around the program. Under Smith, it didn't have any of that.

Hardaway was tasked to change that, and he demonstrated early he was well on his way.

The aura surrounding Hardaway when he would walk into an AAU game in April and July was similar to that of Mike Krzyzewski or Calipari entering the gym. Heads would turn. And Hardaway made his presence felt, sitting front and center for a number of elite-level prospects. The message was obvious: If Hardaway was going to lose a five-star prospect, especially one from the Memphis area, you were going to have to go through Hardaway for him. He wasn't acquiescing to the blue bloods.

Then came Memphis Madness, where a sellout crowd of 18,000 -- along with a handful of five-star recruits and local rappers -- went to watch the official start of the new era. This was no longer the Tubby Smith regime. Memphis basketball was back.

Three weeks later, another domino fell: Jeffries decided to commit to Hardaway and Memphis.

But it all came to a head on Tuesday.

Getting Wiseman was Hardaway's No. 1 task. Could Hardaway, with no college coaching or college recruiting experience, really beat out Calipari and Kentucky for the No. 1 prospect in the country?

Over the past several months, things steadily trended in Memphis' direction. Wiseman could have left the city for his final year of high school and played at Findlay Prep or another powerhouse. He didn't. Wiseman could have waited until the spring to sign. He didn't. He could have taken his final official visit to another school. He didn't.

All along, Wiseman did everything just as Hardaway would have planned.

And we now have our answers. Can Hardaway land elite recruits? Will Hardaway bring excitement back to Memphis basketball?

It's a resounding yes.

Less than one month into Hardaway's first college season, Memphis' hire has already paid off.