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Taylor Eldridge | Wichita Eagle | October 16, 2018

Memphis basketball: Penny Hardaway is in the AAC and it's good for everyone

Penny Mania has already taken over the city of Memphis and it will soon start affecting Wichita State and the rest of the teams in the American Athletic Conference.

After the Shockers were darlings at media day last year in their inaugural men's basketball season in the AAC, first-year Memphis coach Penny Hardaway took the spotlight Monday at the AAC media day in Philadelphia.

"We just love it," AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told The Eagle. "He's going to do really well. He's going to get great players. We needed Memphis to be good. We needed FedEx Forum to be filled. He is Memphis and I think it's going to be great for the league that he's back."

Hardaway's arrival has pumped life back into a Memphis program that hasn't played in the NCAA tournament since 2014. More than 18,000 fans came to Memphis' form of Midnight Madness earlier this month. He has former NBA player Mike Miller as his assistant coach and they travel around in a customized Mercedes van.

Memphis is back in the recruiting hunt for some of the nation's top players, thanks to the pull from Hardaway and Miller and their connections on the AAU circuit. That has already been felt in Wichita, as Hardaway swayed Alex Lomax, WSU's most coveted recruit in its 2018 class, to stay home and join him at Memphis.

"I don't think Houston has caught onto 'Penny Magic' yet, but we know how important that is," Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Penny is going to bring great attention to our league. He's won everywhere he's been. I was a head coach in college when I was 25, so it's not like I had a lot of background. Somebody took a chance on me and they're taking a chance on Penny and I understand it. It's a great move by Memphis and for our league."

Hardaway is a beloved figure in Memphis and the turnout at his Midnight Madness event shows at the backing he has in the community. He was born and raised in Memphis and starred for Memphis State for two seasons from 1991-93.

Basketball is king in Memphis and Hardaway is dedicated to making the Tigers a winner again.

"I want to put the university back to where it has always been in the past and that's on top," Hardaway said. "Me coming back at this time, I felt like I could help. I felt like I could recruit. It could be phenomenal for the city. I didn't have to, but I felt like it was a need. The city needed me."

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How quickly that happens will depend on how Hardaway fares as a coach. He's won big at the high school level and on the AAU circuit, but that was with some of the top talent in the nation. Then again, his recruiting is likely going to bring him some of the top talent in the nation.

Hardaway admits its daunting that his first college coaching job will come in a conference that features mainstays like Sampson, Gregg Marshall, Mick Cronin and Fran Dunphy.

"It didn't hit me until we were at our coaches' meeting in Phoenix and I'm looking around the room and it's like, 'Wow,'" Hardaway said. "The coaches in this conference are amazing. I've watched a lot of these guys forever and I'm excited to be in the same conference with them."

Expectations are high in Memphis and even around the American, as the coaches showed their faith in Hardaway by picking the Tigers fifth in the preseason coaches' poll. Memphis returns plenty of talent from a 21-win team last season, including preseason first-team all-conference pick Jeremiah Martin, as well as adding the top recruiting class in the conference.

Coaches recognize that if Memphis is back, then it only elevates the prestige of the conference.

"Memphis is one of the most storied programs in our conference," UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. "When a program like that is elevated to a level they've been at in the past, then everybody benefits from that. Of course we like to see other programs do well because we all feed off each other."

With Hardaway at Memphis and first-year coach Dan Hurley at Connecticut, Aresco thinks the AAC's potential as a basketball conference may have just been unlocked.

The commissioner views Cincinnati, Houston and WSU as mainstays at the top. Programs like Temple, SMU, UCF and Tulsa are committed to winning. If Memphis and UConn can return to national powers, then Aresco believes the AAC will be competing for bids like the ACC, Big Ten, and Big 12 someday very soon.

"I have no doubt in my mind that we will be a top three conference in America within the next two or three years," Aresco said.

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This article is written by Taylor Eldridge from The Wichita Eagle and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.