James Johns has what Penny Hardaway wants: a championship coaching Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren on the same team.
The 6-foot-9 Bates played with the 6-10 Duren on the team that won the Southern Jamfest, but did not play with Team Final at the Peach Jam because he was back with his father’s Bates Fundamental team, although Bates did support his former teammates by sitting behind the bench.
Now that both Duren and Bates have reclassified and committed to Memphis for the 2021-22 college basketball season — something I wrote three weeks ago in this space was expected — Johns believes “the sky’s the limit” for Hardaway’s team, which will be seeking much bigger titles than those found on the grassroots circuit.
“I think Jalen and Emoni will be great together,” said Johns, now an assistant coach at Fairfield University. “They already have great chemistry on the floor. A real friendship built off the floor. There’s a trust level between them, both understanding the microscope they are under and what they went through to get to this point.
“I know they both feel like this is an opportunity to build off the success they had this summer and take it to a whole other level with the preparation they will get on the college level. I’m excited to see them take this journey together.
“I believe with those two the sky is the limit.”
Memphis fans are understandably fired up — and the college basketball world at large is on notice. Memphis native Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com now has the Tigers ranked No. 7 in his preseason rankings.
And while the hype appears justified considering Memphis now has the No. 1-ranked recruiting class for the second time in three years, per 247Sports.com, it’s hard, very hard, to win an NCAA championship or even to get to a Final Four. There are several reasons to pump the brakes on the idea that Memphis will now win a championship — or even be a Final Four participant — this season.
It’s hard to win with freshmen
In the one-and-done era dating back a little more than a decade, only two teams have relied primarily on one-and-done players and won an NCAA championship: the Anthony Davis/Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Kentucky team of 2012, and the Jahlil Okafor/Justice Winslow/Tyus Jones Duke team of 2015.
It’s hard to win at the highest levels with freshmen. Just ask John Calipari or Coach K. Last year neither Kentucky nor Duke, which again relied on a whole bunch of talented freshmen, made the NCAA Tournament.
**Oklahoma State with eventual No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham? They lost in the second round in March.
**Duke’s heralded 2019 team with uber-talented freshmen Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish? They lost in the Elite Eight.
**Former No. 1 picks Anthony Edwards (Georgia), Markelle Fultz (Washington) and Ben Simmons (LSU)? They never even played in the NCAA Tournament. (The NCAA Tournament was canceled by the pandemic in 2020, but Edwards and Georgia weren’t going that year.)
The 2012 Kentucky and 2015 Duke teams both had veterans who complemented their super-frosh, and the good news for Memphis is that they return veterans DeAndre Williams, Landers Nolley and Lester Quinones while adding Miami transfer Earl Timberlake.
Penny Hardaway has yet to lead the Tigers to the Big Dance
In three seasons coaching at his former school, Hardaway is 63-32 (.663) with zero NCAA Tournament appearances. He did lead the Tigers to the NIT championship last spring.
Safe to say, if Hardaway doesn’t lead a Memphis team with Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren — and Larry Brown, Rasheed Wallace and Cody Toppert on staff — to the NCAA Tournament in 2022, there will be hell to pay.
He did agree to a 5-year, $12.25M extension in December, and then said thanks but no thanks to the Orlando Magic, but it’s hard to imagine what life will be like for Hardaway in Memphis if he somehow doesn’t get this team to the Big Dance — and make some kind of run.
Both Duren and Bates, after all, are considered top-5 NBA Draft picks in 2022 and ‘23, respectively, and NBA scouts will be all over this team this season.
“Might as well get an apartment there,” one NBA Director of Scouting said.
The pressure will be real for Bates, Duren, Hardaway and the rest of the Tigers, but Penny told me two years ago when he had a similar blockbuster class featuring James Wiseman and Precious Achiuwa that he wanted the challenge.
“I think that we want the pressure,” Hardaway said then. “…The pressure of having really good players and then putting that on us, and say, hey, you need to get here, we understand what that means, and we want that. That means that you have a great team and you have the opportunity to win a national championship when they start putting that type of pressure on you.”
The trend is older teams winning in college basketball
As mentioned, no team that has relied primarly on one-and-dones has won the title since 2015.
Since then, older veteran teams like Baylor (2021), Virginia (2019), Villanova (2018 and ‘16) and North Carolina (2017) have dominated.
This year’s consensus No. 1 team is Gonzaga, which actually brings in two key freshmen in projected No. 1 pick Chet Holmgren and Hunter Sallis, but also returns Drew Timme and Andrew Nembhard from last year’s national runner-up.
Schools like UCLA, Villanova and Michigan return experienced cores, while Texas and Kansas (and the whole Big 12) bolstered their rosters via the transfer market. Keep in mind that this year will be unique in that the NCAA allowed fifth-year players to return following the pandemic, so a school like Villanova brings back both Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels.
On a night in and night out basis, and certainly in the NCAA Tournament, Hardaway and the Tigers will be facing older, experienced teams with players who are in their early-to-mid 20s. Bates turns 18 in January, and Duren 18 in November.
Nothing will be guaranteed for the Tigers, but if you’re Penny Hardaway, you have to like your team and your chances.