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Andy Katz | Correspondent | May 8, 2018

Hardaway believes the AAC is within reach for Memphis

Penny Hardaway is confident Memphis can win the American Athletic Conference in his first season as head coach of the Tigers, Hardaway said on the latest podcast March Madness 365.

Hardaway, one of the most famous Memphis players of all time, returned to coach his alma mater after the Tigers fired Tubby Smith following only his second season at the school.

“We have as good a chance as everyone of winning our conference,’’ Hardaway said. “We’re going to play fast offensively. Defensively, we’re going to get after people. We’re not going to hold the ball (on offense). We want to be the best defensive team and the highest scoring team. That’s our focus and we think we can do that.’’

Hardaway came from East High School, earning state titles in the three previous seasons. Hardaway led Memphis to an Elite Eight as a player in 1992 and his No. 25 jersey is one of nine retired by the school.

“I never thought when I was in the NBA that I would coach in middle school or high school or college,’’ said Hardaway on the podcast. “That was never my intention.’’

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Hardaway said as he was going through his coaching career at the scholastic level, “if I was going to coach in college, I wanted to coach my alma mater. I wanted to do it for my alma mater and my home town.’’

Hardaway was quick to praise former Memphis coaches Josh Pastner, for the impossible situation he was put in replacing John Calipari, and then most recently Tubby Smith, who also joined the March Madness 365 podcast this week.

Smith was quickly hired by his alma mater, High Point. Smith left the cupboard full at Memphis. The possibility was for a dozen to return, but after defections the number is down to six. Still, the roster is experienced with the top four scorers back in Jeremiah Martin (18.1 ppg), Kyvon Davenport (13.3), Kareem Brewton Jr. (9.1) and Mike Parks Jr. (8.1) from a team that finished 21-13 overall, 10-8 in the AAC.

Hardaway, who had strong connections in the youth basketball world where parents knew his name/game, picked up Tyler Harris, Antwann Jones, Isaiah Maurice and Alex Lomax, who played for Hardaway, as well as Penny’s son, Jayden.

“It all fell into place the way we wanted,’’ said Hardaway, who discussed on the podcast how much he is looking forward to coaching his son. While the season is still months away, optimism is extremely high.

“It’s going to be electric,’’ said Hardaway. “The city is on fire right now. Everyone is excited.

“My hire has lit a fire under the community and I know that first game is going to be jam packed,’’ said Hardaway. “We’ve got the fans excited about Memphis basketball.’’

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Smith was convinced he was going to be coaching Memphis until he retired, but his tenure was cut short. Still, Smith bounced right back, just like he did when he was fired at Minnesota and landed at Texas Tech. Smith has been on a constant run from Tulsa to Georgia to Kentucky to Minnesota to Tech to Memphis to High Point.

“High Point was not on my radar,’’ said Smith. “I’m not saying that in a derogatory way. Once you get fired, you go through a period where you think you’re going to take it easy and take some time off. I haven’t had a break for 45 years. I love what I do — coaching and teaching.’’

Smith went to High Point with the school’s president Nido Qubein and the decision to go back home made too much sense to him.

“It turned out to be something special,’’ said Smith.

But there were questions.

“Do you have that energy and drive? This is probably the only place,’’ Smith said. Smith went on to say that his wife Donna was fully supportive of the move, considering they met there. The basketball court at the new Qubein Arena (yes named for president Nido and his wife Mariana) is named after Tubby and Donna Smith, both High Point graduates.

Smith said, “People here appreciate me and I’m looking forward to it.’’ Smith said he felt like the Memphis program was headed in the right direction and that he left it in good shape.

“I feel good about what we did there at Memphis and I feel good about what we’re going to do here,’’ said Smith.

'NCAA March Madness Confidential' returns with behind-the-scenes coverage of seven NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship teams

Turner Sports and CBS Sports’ joint coverage of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship will include the return of NCAA March Madness Confidential, providing exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to seven NCAA Tournament teams. This year’s Confidential series features Auburn, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Texas Tech, Providence, Memphis and Notre Dame.

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