Memphis basketball coach Tubby Smith’s late hire on April 14 has him off to a slow recruiting start. He has only one modest commitment in the Class of 2016 from a two-star guard, Keon Clergeot.
But that doesn’t mean the sage coach is failing to find his way around the recruiting trail for 2017 and beyond.
The Memphis “Commercial Appeal” posted a Twitter photo of Smith last week at the Peach Jam, a staple on the college basketball recruiting circuit in North Augusta, S.C. Smith was courtside seated next to an old friend, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo. They both watched Team Penny, the Memphis travel ball squad coached and founded by 14-year NBA veteran Penny Hardaway.
— L. Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith) July 7, 2016
Hardaway still calls Memphis home after playing high school ball at Memphis Sheffield (before he transferred to Treadwell) and for the University of Memphis. Yes, Tubby knows where to park himself to start building recruiting relationships on his new job.
The understated Smith is widely respected in his business for both his integrity and command of X’s and O’s. When he led Texas Tech to the NCAA Tournament last year, he tied Lon Kruger as the only two coaches to guide five schools to March Madness berths.
He previously led Tulsa to two Sweet Sixteen trips (1994 and 1995), Georgia twice with one Sweet Sixteen (1996), Kentucky 10 straight years with an NCAA title (1998) and Minnesota three with a third-round trip (2013).
Smith was named the Big 12 Coach of the Year last season, his third at Texas Tech, after he led the Red Raider back to the NCAA for the first time since 2007. That painfully reminded Minnesota fans the Gophers never should have let him go. Minnesota was home last post-season with an 8-23 record.
When Minnesota fired Smith, he received a call the next day from Texas Tech’s athletic director Kirby Hocutt. That’s a bounce-back.
But one of the questions surrounding Smith at Memphis is whether he can recruit enough talent to equal the Elite Eight and Final Four runs the Tigers have made in the past. Memphis finished as national runner-up to UCLA in 1973 under Gene Bartow and in 2008 under John Calipari. In all, there have been three Final Fours and six Elite Eights.
At Kentucky, Smith’s recruiting was never enough for Wildcat fans despite a national title. They wanted him to match the type of high-profile names landed by his predecessor, Rick Pitino, and the current coach, Calipari.
So Smith may not have a used-car salesman pitch that works, but he knows how to identify and develop talent. At Texas Tech, he convinced Justin Gray to leave the sunshine of Tampa, Fla., to play in arid Lubbock. The 6-foot-6, 195-pounder is on the verge of a breakout season as a junior (unless it turns out that he misses the coaching Smith provided) after averaging 8.7 points a game behind three veterans.
At Minnesota, the Gophers were led by Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins (no relation), two talented guards he convinced to leave Tennessee for frozen Minneapolis.
Just talked with Coach Tubby Smith of Memphis. All the big name coaches in Augusta for the Nike Peach Jam. pic.twitter.com/yw9rrR9cpq
— Jake Rakoci (@Rakoci) July 6, 2016
He inherits a Memphis roster topped by Dedric Lawson, a 6-foot-9, 228-pound sophomore guard/forward, who led the Tigers in scoring with 15.8 points a game. He will combine with his brother K.J. Lawson, a 6-foot7, 204-pound guard/forward, who averaged 8.8 points until an injury limited him to a 10-game season.
After that, Memphis will have to rely on Smith developing his young roster that has only one little-used senior, guard Jake McDowell.
Knowing Smith, that may be enough time to break a tie with Kruger by leading his sixth school to an NCAA Tournament. But even if he needs a honeymoon season, count on Smith elevating the program the next two and three years and beyond.