On the day in March 2018 when Memphis made the decision to fire coach Tubby Smith, it had been four years since Memphis won an NCAA tournament game, and three-and-a-half since it had landed an ESPN 100 prospect. Eighteen months later, Memphis is the most buzzed-about team in college basketball entering the 2019-20 season. These are the steps that led to the Tigers becoming one of the most feared programs on the recruiting trail and soon, perhaps, on the court:
Stage I: Penny hires a staff, targets a phenom
March 20, 2018: Penny Hardaway is introduced as Memphis' new head coach
It hadn't been much of a secret over the final few weeks of the season, but when Memphis parted ways with Tubby Smith, it was only a matter of time before the Tigers made their replacement pick official. Hardaway grew up in Memphis, played for the Tigers and returned to coach both high school and AAU ball in the city after a successful NBA career. There has been some concern expressed about the hire, given that Hardaway has zero coaching experience above the high school level -- but his name brings excitement back to the program, something that had been lacking under Smith.
More importantly, Hardaway brings recruiting connections. Due to his time at East High School in Memphis and with the Team Penny grassroots program, Hardaway has ties to a number of the top prospects in the area. Memphis faithful are hoping that will translate into commitments.
April 3, 2018: Hardaway gets his first commitment: his son, Jayden
April 4, 2018: Alex Lomax commits
April 5, 2018: Hardaway hires Mike Miller as an assistant coach
Hardaway has already hired Tony Madlock -- his former college teammate who had spent time as an assistant coach at Ole Miss, Auburn and a couple other places -- and will eventually bring on Sam Mitchell, but Hardaway makes headlines when he brings on Mike Miller. Miller had played for the Memphis Grizzlies and also sponsored a grassroots program in the city, M33M, which was run by his cousin, Ernie Kuyper. Miller also had worked out with prospects in the past. With direct ties to two of the three major AAU programs in Memphis and inroads to a number of top prospects, Hardaway was building a fence around the city.
April 7, 2018: Memphis offers James Wiseman
When Hardaway took over, one of his biggest tasks was obvious: Get James Wiseman. Wiseman, a 7-foot center, is the No. 1 prospect in the 2019 class. Kentucky remains the heavy favorite to land him, but Hardaway coached Wiseman for Team Penny and at East High School. Memphis is going to be a factor for him.
April 13, 2018: Tyler Harris commits to Memphis. It isn't earth-shattering news on its own, but combined with Lomax's earlier pledge, it's the start of a trend. Both Harris and Lomax are four-star prospects from Memphis, two players the Tigers didn't have a shot at under Tubby Smith.
April 18, 2018: Hardaway aims high during the April recruiting period
Hardaway makes his presence felt with high-level prospects one month after taking the job. He visits with Wiseman and local big man Malcolm Dandridge. He offers five-stars Trendon Watford, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Matthew Hurt. He reaches out to five-stars Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine. He visits with Ashton Hagans. Chandler Lawson and Jaykwon Walton are two more ESPN 100 prospects on his hit list. It's clear Hardaway is prioritizing a different caliber of player than Memphis has seen in a few years.
May 2, 2018: Malcolm Dandridge commits, starts the 2019 class for Memphis
Hardaway is on the board in 2019, landing the local big man Dandridge. Dandridge is not a top-100 prospect, but he's from Memphis, played for the Bluff City Legends (formerly Team Penny) on the Nike EYBL circuit and attends East High School. He's also close with Wiseman.
May 9, 2018: David Wingett commits to Memphis for 2018
June 7, 2018: Ryan Boyce commits to Memphis for 2018
Stage II: Penny circles in during July live periods
July 13, 2018: DJ Jeffries reiterates publicly that he's a Kentucky commit
DJ Jeffries is a five-star forward from Olive Branch High School (Mississippi) who played for Hardaway on Team Penny/Bluff City Legends. Jeffries also committed to Kentucky shortly before Hardaway took over at Memphis. He has maintained since then that he's heading to Kentucky, saying in April that he's "all in" with Kentucky. In July at the Nike Peach Jam, he says it again in response to multiple questions about his status. Jeffries also says he's trying to recruit Wiseman to Kentucky.
July 15, 2018: Wiseman tells ESPNU that "Memphis and Kentucky are definitely my top two schools right now."
July 2018: Hardaway and his staff cast wide net
Hardaway, Miller and the rest of the staff hit the trail hard in July. The aforementioned prospects -- Wiseman, Watford, Hurt -- are among the top targets, but Memphis also watches CJ Walker and Jaden McDaniels. Miller's former program, M33M, has become Hoop City Basketball Club, and they have featured Wiseman, Watford, Lawson and Kira Lewis following the Nike Peach Jam.
Memphis' newfound prowess on the recruiting trail is on display at the Las Vegas Summer Showcase, an event run by Scott Robinson -- who worked at Memphis under John Calipari. The two headlining teams? Hoop City BC, featuring Wiseman, Watford, Lawson and Lewis, and D1 Minnesota, featuring Hurt.
July 30, 2018: DJ Jeffries decommits from Kentucky; Memphis jumps out as favorite
Turns out the months of rumors and speculation are true. Jeffries is back on the market. Two days later, Jeffries' father will go on ESPN Radio's Memphis affiliate and say Kentucky was "unprofessional" in the way it handled his son's decommitment.
Corey Jeffries will also say that Hardaway being at Memphis was a component in his son's decision to reopen his recruitment.
"It was a factor," Jeffries tells ESPN Radio. "We have a bond with Penny already. It's not like we have to get reacquainted with him."
Aug. 7, 2018: Wiseman decides to stay at East High School, putting to rest rumors of him transferring to a national high school powerhouse for his senior year. His decision to stay in Memphis for his final year of high school is a win for Hardaway, given the coach's geographical proximity to Wiseman and his connection to the school.
Stage III: It's visit season, and Penny makes his move
Sept. 21, 2018: DJ Jeffries takes his official visit to Memphis. While the Tigers emerged as the early favorites, Mississippi State has also been a factor. Jeffries committing to Hardaway is not the done deal everyone thought back in late July.
Oct. 4, 2018: Memphis Madness
It's a critical Thursday night for Hardaway's program. Not only does a sellout crowd of 18,000 fans show up, and not only do Memphis natives Yo Gotti, Moneybagg Yo, Blocboy JB and Derez Deshon perform, but Hardaway brings in tons of recruits.
Wiseman is there unofficially; Jeffries has returned a couple weeks after taking his official visit; Trendon Watford shows up, with Memphis looking like a potential favorite; ESPN 100 Jahmius Ramsey is on campus; five-star Precious Achiuwa is a surprise visitor after being considered a St. John's vs. UConn battle; and ESPN 100 guard Boogie Ellis takes an unofficial visit despite leaning toward Duke and North Carolina.
Because it's held on a Thursday rather than a Friday, Memphis essentially has the night to itself. The event has generated plenty of social media buzz and made the Tigers the epicenter of the recruiting world during the week.
On a side note, buzz has continued to grow that Wiseman is going to make a decision in the next few months -- as opposed to waiting until the spring.
Oct. 26, 2018: Wiseman officially visits Memphis
Despite being considered mostly a Kentucky vs. Memphis battle, Wiseman has maintained he wants to take all five official visits. In addition to the Tigers and Wildcats, the top prospect has also visited Florida State, Kansas and Vanderbilt. He rescheduled his Memphis visit to late October, essentially giving Hardaway and the Tigers a chance to have the final say for him.
Oct. 27, 2018: Hardaway lands his first five-star prospect: DJ Jeffries
Jeffries commits to Memphis, announcing his decision via Twitter on a Saturday morning. He has taken official visits to Memphis, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama, but also went to Memphis a number of times unofficially. Jeffries' relationship with Hardaway ultimately proved to be the difference. The Tigers now have two prospects in the fold in Jeffries and Malcolm Dandridge, both current or former teammates of Wiseman.
Nov. 2, 2018: Wiseman takes an unofficial visit to Memphis
Nov. 12, 2018: Memphis extends a scholarship offer to four-star guard Damian Baugh, a local player who had already visited TCU, Georgetown and Auburn.
Nov. 20, 2018: James Wiseman commits to Memphis
It's official: Wiseman is staying home and playing for Hardaway and Memphis. Wiseman chooses the Tigers over Kentucky.
"I will be attending the University of Memphis," Wiseman announces live on SportsCenter, pulling out a stuffed unicorn with a Memphis logo on it.
While the 2018-19 season has barely started -- Memphis is 2-1 when Wiseman commits -- Hardaway is already living up to the expectations set when he took the job. He's landed a former Kentucky commit and has beaten out John Calipari for the No. 1 prospect in the country.
Intermission: Hardaway's first season at Memphis ends with a 22-14 record, fifth place in the American Athletic Conference at 11-7. The Tigers -- who reached the second round of the NIT -- were among the fastest-paced teams in the country, and won nine of their final 13 games to end the season. They won four games against NCAA tournament competition: UCF twice (by a combined 44 points), Temple once and Yale in double-overtime. Hardaway is losing all five starters, but there are certainly signs of optimism in Memphis.
Stage IV: Penny owns the spring, and Memphis blows up the national picture
March 6, 2018: Damian Baugh commits to Memphis
Baugh played for Team Thad -- another Memphis-based grassroots program -- on the Under Armour Association circuit, and the four-star guard ultimately decides to stay in the state for college. The Tigers have a number of five-star prospects left on their board in 2019, but Baugh had been one of the better two-way point guards remaining in the class.
March 13, 2019: ESPN 100 guard Lester Quinones visits Memphis. Indiana, LSU, Maryland and Michigan are also on Quinones' list.
April 22, 2019: Five-star forward Precious Achiuwa visits Memphis. The Tigers had been something of an afterthought for much of his recruitment, as local options UConn and St. John's were in the mix early, then North Carolina offered on Christmas Day and Kansas remained a factor. UCLA's coaching change has also impacted his recruitment.
April 30, 2019: Elite guard RJ Hampton reclassifies from the 2020 class into 2019. Memphis is among his final schools, along with Kentucky, Kansas and Texas Tech.
May 2, 2019: Boogie Ellis decommits from Duke. Ellis had committed to the Blue Devils in November, choosing them over Memphis, North Carolina, San Diego State and USC. Duke added top-50 guard Cassius Stanley in the spring, though, leading to speculation that it impacted Ellis' decision.
May 10, 2019: Lester Quinones commits to Memphis
Quinones, an ESPN 100 guard from Long Island who played at IMG Academy (Florida), announces for Memphis during a ceremony near his hometown. He chooses the Tigers over a list that included Indiana, LSU, Maryland and Michigan.
Meanwhile, Boogie Ellis begins a visit to Memphis on the same day. The Tigers emerged as the front-runner for Ellis almost immediately after his decommitment from Duke.
May 11, 2019: Rayjon Tucker, the No. 2 grad transfer on the market, announces he'll play at Memphis. Tucker, who had also entered his name into the NBA draft and was working out for pro teams, will never play at Memphis -- but his commitment signals the continued attraction of Hardaway's program for top players. Tucker went undrafted, but is currently in camp with the Milwaukee Bucks.
May 13, 2019: Boogie Ellis commits to Memphis
Shortly after visiting Memphis' campus, Ellis pledges to the Tigers. Ellis had been one of the five best uncommitted seniors in the 2019 class -- with Memphis involved for three of those five.
May 17, 2019: Precious Achiuwa commits to Memphis
Hardaway caps off an unbelievable week with a commitment from five-star forward Precious Achiuwa. Achiuwa chooses Memphis over Kansas, although North Carolina was also involved during the spring and hosted Achiuwa for an official visit.
May 17, 2019: Memphis secures the No. 1 recruiting class in the country
With Achiuwa in the fold, Hardaway and Memphis are atop the recruiting rankings. The Tigers now have three five-star prospects in the fold in Wiseman, Achiuwa and Jeffries, along with ESPN 100 guards Ellis and Quinones. The four-star center Dandridge and four-star point guard Baugh -- two Memphis products -- round out the group.
For the first time since 2012, a school besides Duke or Kentucky has the best recruiting class in the country. And it's Memphis and Penny Hardaway -- just 14 months after landing his first college job.