Memphis entered the 2019-20 college basketball season as perhaps the biggest storyline in the sport. Penny Hardaway as its head coach, the No. 1 recruiting class entering the fold, the No. 1 recruit and potential No. 1 pick headlining the roster. It was expected to be a banner season for Memphis basketball.
While the Tigers have remained the main headline in college basketball, it’s now for a different reason: James Wiseman, the aforementioned No. 1 recruit and potential No. 1 pick, has been declared ineligible (for at least the second time) and now awaits reinstatement from the NCAA.
It’s unclear when Wiseman will return for the Tigers. He played the second and third games of the season after already being deemed “likely ineligible” by the NCAA, and the school admitted Wiseman’s family accepted $11,500 in moving expenses from Hardaway back in the summer of 2017. Regardless of Hardaway’s relationship with the Wiseman family at the time or what his intentions were in regards to the Memphis head coaching job, it’s a booster providing money to the family of a prospect who would later enroll at the booster’s school. That’s an NCAA violation and will result in a suspension.
BYU’s Nick Emery was suspended nine games two summers ago after accepting more than $12,000 from a booster. A similar suspension is likely for Wiseman, although it’s unclear how the NCAA will view Memphis opting to play him for two games after being ruled ineligible. Any punishment — if one even comes down — for Hardaway is even more unclear, as there is likely not precedent for a booster providing money to a player’s family and then becoming the college coach of that player.
While the punishment for Wiseman plays out off the court, what’s been forgotten is how this impacts Memphis on the court. The Tigers are still loaded with talent, but losing arguably the best prospect in college basketball is going to be noticed.
If Wiseman gets hit with a nine-game suspension as Emery did, that would take him out of all but one remaining non-conference games, a stretch that includes games against Ole Miss, NC State and the rivalry game against Tennessee. The Tigers should be able to handle the likes of Alcorn State and Little Rock just fine, but Ole Miss, NC State and Tennessee are potential tournament teams and only one of those three games is at home.
How will Memphis look without Wiseman? The freshman center hasn’t played more than 25 minutes in a game this season, hitting that mark against Illinois-Chicago and logging 22 minutes against both Oregon and South Carolina State. Without Wiseman on the court, Hardaway has elected to go smaller, with freshman forward Precious Achiuwa and former Louisville transfer Lance Thomas manning the five-spot. It would appear that’s how Hardaway will operate moving forward, especially against the lower-level opponents.
Achiuwa, a 6-foot-9 forward, was one of the best rebounders in high school basketball last season and will be comfortable operating down low. He hasn’t been as active on the offensive glass as he was at the high school level, but that could change as he moves closer to the rim. Thomas, also a 6-foot-9 forward, only played six minutes against Oregon but that will increase. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see senior center Isaiah Maurice log a couple extra minutes as well. He’s only played five minutes total this season, but Maurice is 6-foot-10 and will be able to provide depth.
With Memphis going smaller down low, expect to see DJ Jeffries line up next to Achiuwa in the frontcourt. Jeffries has been very solid in the early going, scoring 12 points against Oregon and 14 against Illinois-Chicago. He was a combo forward at the high school level and is versatile enough to play the power forward spot. Ryan Boyce — forever linked to Wiseman after transferring to East High School (Tennessee) at the same time — could see more minutes.
The perimeter is likely to remain the same. Through three games, Hardaway has mostly rotated a five-man guard group including freshmen Lester Quinones, Boogie Ellis and Damion Baugh and sophomores Alex Lomax and Tyler Harris. Quinones will continue to see the most minutes due to his 6-foot-5, 210-pound size, along with his passing and shooting ability. Hardaway’s son, Jayden, has seen minutes in every game and could see a nominal increase if Memphis is forced to play four guards for long stretches.
Now that Memphis has agreed with the NCAA and declared Wiseman ineligible, this isn’t going to be the end of a potential dream season for the Tigers. Wiseman will serve his suspension and likely return by the end of the 2019 calendar year. Memphis will still be a title contender in the American Athletic Conference and will still be one of the most talented teams in the country heading into the NCAA tournament.
Had Memphis continued to drag this out and play Wiseman, a punishment could have loomed later in the season — a longer and potentially more severe punishment. Now, however, this situation could be in the Tigers’ rear-view mirror by the time conference play starts. And that figures to be a positive for Memphis.