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Memphis is inexperienced but loaded with talent and the potential that comes with it

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Memphis left a Tubby and took a Penny, which, although occasionally frowned upon, seems to be working.

PK Invitational - Memphis v Oregon Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Every coaching change comes with risk and pressure, but Memphis heaped a little more of the latter on itself when it jettisoned Tubby Smith after only two seasons and replaced him with Penny Hardaway, who had no college coaching experience. Hardaway of course had a successful NBA playing career and he knows Memphis well, though neither of those things guarantee success. We’ve seen similar scenarios play out badly at major college programs elsewhere.

The difference in Penny’s case is he was already plugged into the AAU scene and in fact was running a program full of high-major talent. His connections there guaranteed that he was going to bring elite players to the Tigers, and he’s done just that. Memphis’ 2019 class ranked No. 1 nationally and included five top-100 kids. Among them was center James Wiseman, the top player in the class and maybe the No. 1 pick in next year’s NBA Draft.

Wiseman won’t play for Memphis again until January thanks to an NCAA-mandated suspension, but even so, the Tigers have enough pure talent to compete with anybody. This is not an elite team yet, but it could get there.

Memphis Offense

2020 Tigers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Tigers Off_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Offense 107.1 (41) 54.4 (45) 19.9 (187) 36.3 (25) 46.4 (9)

Memphis’ rotation is made up almost entirely of freshmen and sophomores—this is the least-experienced team in the country. That comes with its own challenges, and why it might take a little longer than usual for this team to reach its potential. No doubt they have a lot of that, but most first-year guys are going to struggle with consistency no matter how talented they are.

It doesn’t help that Wiseman will be collecting dust until mid-January and unable to build on-court rapport with teammates until then. The good news for Memphis is that elite talent tends to come with a sharper growth curve—the Tigers may need a minute to sort themselves out but they can get better in a hurry once they do.

In the near term, NC State is extremely fortunate not to have to contend with Wiseman, who mauled Memphis’ opponents in the three games he saw action to begin the year. Wiseman is 20-25 from two and has ridiculous rebounding numbers.

The Tigers are also without starter Lester Quinones, who recently broke a couple of bones in his hand. Quinones is averaging 10.3 points per game.

I’m not sure that Memphis is capable of being an elite team without Wiseman and Quinones’ absence is no help either, but neither represents a crippling loss for a roster with this much talent. Not a lot of programs could suffer the loss of two top-60 kids without a substantial dropoff in performance, but Memphis can.

Starters

Damion Baugh (6’3, 185) — Baugh is accounting for a little over eight percent of Memphis’ shots while he’s on the floor, which is a minuscule workload. He seems fine with being a distributor first and foremost, and he has an excellent assist rate. That’s coming with a whole lot of turnovers, though.

Alex Lomax (6’0, 190) — Lomax also has been only an occasional shooter, though it’s tough to guess how Quinones’ absence might shuffle the deck for this back court. As a freshman in 2019, Lomax struggled from two (40.8%) and three (20.6%). So far this season he’s been a much better shooter.

Boogie Ellis (6’3, 175) — Ellis is struggling to find his shooting touch: he is 9-28 (32.1%) from three and 8-21 (38.1%) inside the arc. He hasn’t been shy about taking shots and might be better served pumping the brakes a tad until his efficiency improves.

DJ Jeffries (6’7, 225) — A big reason why Memphis is one of the top two-point shooting teams in the country—Jeffries is hitting 62.5% of his 2FGAs so far. He has also been an excellent shot blocker.

Precious Achiuwa (6’9, 225) — Figure Achiuwa for the lead dog with Memphis out two other double-digit scorers. He’s been tremendous on the glass while hitting almost 57% of his twos, and he’s a foul-drawing machine. There is one problem: his 47.8% free throw shooting. Since he averages nearly eight free throw attempts per game, the poor shooting is extra painful.

Bench

Tyler Harris (5’9, 150), Isaiah Maurice (6’10, 224), Jayden Hardaway (6’5, 195), Lance Thomas (6’9, 224).

Harris should be the most visible guy off the bench, both in terms of minutes played and his involvement in the offense. The majority of his shots figure to be threes, but he’s only about 32% from outside for his career.

Jayden Hardaway is—you guessed it—Penny’s son. And I feel extra old all of the sudden.

Memphis Defense

2020 Tigers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
2020 Tigers Def_Eff (rk) eFG% TO% OR% FTR
Defense 92.0 (52) 42.9 (31) 26.0 (13) 28.7 (194) 38.0 (277)

Interior defense has been Memphis’ strength up to this point, and I expect that’ll continue throughout the season. The Tigers have multiple bigs who can alter shots, even without Wiseman available, and opponents are settling for a lot of three-point shots. That is an obvious potential stumbling block for NC State, which is thin up front and can get a little jumper-happy.

The Pomeroy Predictor says you should make a call and flip a coin on the outcome of this game.