Memphis coach Penny Hardaway went 22-14 and led the Tigers to an NIT berth in his debut season. His biggest wins came on the recruiting trail.
Hardaway added the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class by signing five top-60 prospects and seven top-115 players as measured by composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports.
That heralded class helps explain why Memphis is ranked 14th to start the season and is expected to contend for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2014. Memphis has the highest preseason ranking of any team that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament last season.
Hardaway believes the Tigers ought to be ranked even higher.
“Obviously if it were another college, a bigger college, they would be ranked in the top five if they had the No. 1 recruiting class,” Hardaway said last month, before the Top 25 was released. “I guess it’s just in their minds the inexperience of our staff on this level. But that’s up to us, to make it different.”
Memphis’ collection of freshmen features 7-foot-1 center James Wiseman, the No. 1 prospect in his class according to 247Sports. It also includes forwards Precious Achiua (15th in the 247Sports Composite) and D.J. Jeffries (52nd), guards Boogie Ellis (38th), Lester Quinones (58th) and Damion Baugh (115th) plus center Malcolm Dandridge (106th).
“Experience is the best teacher,” Hardaway said. “They’re going to get out there, get their feet wet and see what works and what doesn’t work. As long as they stay within themselves and listen to us, I think they’ll be OK.”
Some other teams that missed out on the most recent NCAA Tournament have reason to feel optimistic about their postseason prospects this year.
No. 21 ARIZONA
2018-19 record: 17-15 (8-10 Pac-12)
Arizona had won at least 27 games and reached the NCAA Tournament in six straight seasons before taking a big step backward last year. The Wildcats could return this year as their freshman class includes two top-13 recruits in guards Nico Mannion (9th) and Josh Green (13th). Mannion was a first-team pick and Green was a second-team selection on the preseason all-Pac-12 team. Fifth-year senior Chase Jeter averaged 11.1 points and 6.6 rebounds last season.
2018-19 record: 23-13 (10-8 Pac-12), NIT quarterfinalist
Colorado returns five players who made at least 26 starts and averaged at least 8.9 points last season. Junior guard/forward Tyler Bey was a first-team all-Pac-12 selection last year as he averaged 13.6 points and 9.9 rebounds. Other returning starters include seniors Shane Gatling (9.7 ppg last season) and Lucas Siewert (8.9) and juniors McKinley Wright IV (13.0) and D’Shawn Schwartz (9.2).
2018-19 record: 24-10 (14-4 Atlantic 10), lost in first round of NIT
Davidson returns its entire starting lineup from a team that finished second in the Atlantic 10 last season. The Wildcats have an exceptional backcourt featuring 2018-19 A-10 player of the year Jon Axel Gudmundsson and Kellan Grady. Gudmundsson averaged 16.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists last season. Grady had 17.3 points per game a year ago. Other returning starters include KiShawn Pritchett, Luke Frampton and Luka Brajkovic.
2018-19 record: 19-12 (10-4 Ivy League), lost in second round of NIT
Harvard won the Ivy League regular-season title last year but settled for an NIT bid after losing to Yale in the league tournament championship game. Bryce Aiken scored 38 points in that loss to Yale and is back for his senior year after averaging 22.2 points last season. Harvard also returns 2017-18 Ivy player of the year Seth Towns, who missed the entire 2018-19 season with a knee injury.
2018-19 record: 12-21, 7-13 Big Ten
Consider this a leap of faith that the Illini will make a major jump in Brad Underwood’s third season as coach. Illinois hasn’t reached the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and is the only team on this list that finished below .500 last season, but the Illini return eight of their top nine scorers from a year ago. That list includes guards Ayo Dosunmu (13.8 ppg last season) and Trent Frazier (13.7) as well as forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12.5). Illinois also welcomes 7-foot freshman Kofi Cockburn, who was ranked 46th nationally in the 247Sports Composite.
No. 19 XAVIER
2018-19 record: 19-16 (9-9 Big East), lost in second round of NIT
Xavier’s string of five straight NCAA Tournament bids ended last year in Travis Steele’s debut season as head coach, but the return of four starters could enable the Musketeers to start a new streak. Junior Naji Marshall, a first-team preseason all-Big East selection, averaged 14.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists last year. Other returning starters include seniors Quentin Goodin and Tyrique Jones plus junior Paul Scruggs.
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