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Penny Hardaway: 'Zero' chance Memphis would accept NIT invitation

The question hadn’t even fully escaped the lips of the person asking it before Penny Hardaway shot it down.

“Penny, if an NIT invitation is extended … ” a reporter began Thursday after Memphis’ 71-65 faceplant against Wichita State in the second round of the AAC tournament.

“Zero,” Hardaway interrupted. “No sir.”

When asked to elaborate, Hardaway said he hadn’t yet talked to his administration, but he’s “not looking to play no more NITs.” Memphis twice accepted invitations to the NIT under Hardaway and won the tournament in 2021 before securing NCAA bids both of the past two years.

Hardaway also mentioned that his frustration with how Memphis faded over the second half of the season isn’t the only reason he prefers not to coach the Tigers in a second-tier postseason tournament. For months, Hardaway has divided his time between basketball and helping his mother, Fae Hardaway, who he said has been in and out of the hospital while battling throat cancer.

“It’s very difficult being the caretaker of my mother,” Hardaway said. “I have no help until I leave town. It’s just me.

“I’m sorry, I’m not disrespecting the NIT. It has just been a tough season already.”

The basketball aspect appeared to be going smoothly as recently as two months ago. Memphis had started 15-2 and had ascended all the way to No. 10 in the AP poll. With victories over the likes of Michigan, Arkansas, Clemson, Texas A&M and Missouri, the Tigers appeared poised to return to the NCAA tournament.

The outlook changed from there as the Tigers dropped four straight games and six of nine at the same time as many of the name-brand teams they beat in non-league play were also failing to live up to expectations. As a result, Memphis (22-10, 11-7) entered this week’s AAC tournament with their NCAA tourney hopes riding on winning the auto bid.

Feb 25, 2024; Memphis, Tennessee, USA; Memphis Tigers head coach  Penny Hardaway gives direction during the second half against the Florida Atlantic Owls at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports
Penny Hardaway and Memphis lost to Wichita State on Thursday in the second round of the AAC tournament. (Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports) (USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Connect / Reuters)

That, of course, didn’t happen. Memphis didn’t even advance to the quarterfinals. The fifth-seeded Tigers rallied to erase a 14-point second-half deficit against 12th-seeded Wichita State, only to see the Shockers regain the lead on a lob dunk and then stretch it out once again.

When asked why Memphis came out flat in a must-win game, Hardaway said he didn’t know and that was a better question for his players. When asked what went wrong over the second half of the season, Hardaway again said he wished he knew before alluding to a season-ending knee injury suffered in January by senior guard Caleb Mills.

“We lose Caleb, who was a vocal leader and a great defender and definitely an extension of the coach on the floor,” Hardaway said. “Maybe that’s the biggest reason.”

Hardaway said that next season he will be harder on players who don’t live up to his standard and will put a greater emphasis on defense and rebounding when he builds his roster. This season’s additions through the transfer portal, David Jones, Jahvon Quinerly and Nae’Qwan Tomlin, among others, were more offensive-oriented.

“It just has to be different next year,” Hardaway said. “This doesn’t sit well with me because it just wasn’t a representation of who we should be.”