At Memphis, Virus Setbacks and Mixed Play Put High Hopes in Doubt

When a men’s college basketball game between Memphis and Tennessee became one of many high-profile sporting events canceled or postponed because of a rise in coronavirus cases, the circumstances presented new questions to Memphis Coach Penny Hardaway about how many of his players were vaccinated.

During the preseason, Hardaway said 90 percent of his players were vaccinated, but the Tennessee cancellation revealed that only four players were eligible for the game. Some players who had not tested positive themselves would be unable to play because of contact tracing, a restriction that applies only to unvaccinated players.

“I probably just misspoke on that situation,” Hardaway told reporters on Sunday about his original assertion that more of his players were vaccinated.

The handling of the cancellation irritated Tennessee’s coach, Rick Barnes, who bristled at the idea of rescheduling broached by Hardaway and others. “We are not going to risk scheduling a team we know that has many unvaccinated players,” he told reporters. “That would be irresponsible on our part.”

The flap was the latest in a string of incidents for a Memphis program that came into this season with high expectations yet has had several problems, including poor play. Tennessee, sporting a No. 18 ranking in the Associated Press poll, represented a big chance for the Tigers to make a case that they should be in the N.C.A.A. tournament field.

Hardaway, in his fourth season coaching his alma mater after he was a star guard in the N.B.A., has yet to take the Tigers to the N.C.A.A. tournament, although they did win the National Invitation Tournament in March.

Memphis’s record is 6-4, and making the N.C.A.A. tournament appears to be iffy right now. The team has also paused activities until Monday because of the pandemic. This is not what the team’s fans had envisioned for this season.

“Everybody thought this was absolutely a tournament team, and it’s not,” Greg Gaston Sr., a Memphis play-by-play announcer who also hosts a radio show in Memphis, said in a telephone interview. “And it would be not only hugely disappointing, but there are people that say if they don’t get to the tournament this year, Penny should lose his job.” (That is unlikely, Gaston said, and Hardaway signed a five-year extension worth nearly $12.3 million a year ago.)

When Hardaway persuaded the high school stars Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren to reclassify and enroll early at the university this summer, then hired the Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown and the former N.B.A. star Rasheed Wallace to his staff, expectations for the Tigers soared.

After all, Bates and Duren were initially the top two recruits in the class of 2022 and considered future N.B.A. lottery picks. Duren drew comparisons to Dwight Howard; Bates was compared to a young Kevin Durant when he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in November 2019.

The Tigers entered the season at No. 12 in the A.P. preseason poll, and various sports books had them among the favorites to win the N.C.A.A. tournament.

Yet after starting the season 5-0, the Tigers lost four straight games, including a 19-point rout by Iowa State and a 2-point home loss to Murray State.

During the skid, the 17-year-old Bates asked out of the starting lineup, and the locker room was seemingly split between veterans and freshmen. Hardaway didn’t hold back in ripping his older players in comments to The Athletic.

“Everybody’s trying to get to the N.B.A. off the ranking we had, but nobody is willing to sacrifice minutes, touches, anything,” Hardaway said. “It’s been miserable.”

Bates is competing against players often several years older because of his reclassification and because of a wave of fifth-year players and transfers immediately eligible this season.

He is a natural small forward, yet Hardaway chose to play him at point guard to start the season. It hasn’t gone well. He often dribbles with his head down or dribbles into double teams and has taken a lot of questionable shots.

“There are a lot of shots that you can get away with in high school or A.A.U. basketball that you can’t get away with in college basketball, no matter who you’re playing,” Gaston said.

Bates is no longer widely perceived as a surefire No. 1 overall pick in 2023, the first year he would be eligible for the N.B.A. draft.

“Just because you’re 6-8 and can dribble the ball, doesn’t mean you’re Penny Hardaway,” ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said during the broadcast of a game.

In a 67-63 loss to Mississippi on Dec. 4, Bates shot 1 for 10 overall, 0 for 4 from 3-point range. He was heckled by Mississippi fans after the game and had to be restrained by teammates on his way to the locker room.

In the team’s most recent game, a 92-78 victory over then No. 6 Alabama on Dec. 14, Bates finished with 7 points on 1-of-7 shooting and three turnovers in 15 minutes. He did not play the final 14 minutes of the second half, while veterans like Tyler Harris, Landers Nolley, DeAndre Williams and Lester Quinones excelled, along with Duren, who earned freshman of the week honors in the conference.

“People are watching Bates struggle as a 17-year-old, and it’s not shocking that it’s happened,” Gaston, the broadcaster, said.

He pointed out that the former Memphis star Derrick Rose “struggled early on in the season” during his one-and-done year there before he led the Tigers to the 2008 N.C.A.A. championship game.

“The hope is that Emoni Bates can figure it out,” Gaston said. “But I think people were more disappointed that Penny kept going to him. The fact that Penny decided to not bring him in when the five on the floor were doing well says a lot of things.”

This is not Hardaway’s first run coaching a hyped high school star. He coached 7-foot-1 James Wiseman on an age group team before Wiseman followed Hardaway to Memphis for the 2019-20 season. Wiseman was suspended for 12 games by the N.C.A.A. because his family improperly accepted moving expenses from Hardaway, and he left Memphis to train for the N.B.A. draft after only a handful of games. He now plays for the Golden State Warriors, but has yet to play this season because of a torn meniscus in his right knee.

Memphis officials said they could not make Bates or any other players available for this article because of the team’s pause. University officials said Tuesday that they held a session on Sunday afternoon with players and their families about “the implications of not being vaccinated.”

Hardaway, who said he had been vaccinated, said he hoped the thought of missing an N.C.A.A. tournament game would motivate more players to get a vaccine.

“Our season’s going to be over, and that’s something that they have to think about with their parents,” he said. “Obviously, this could rear its ugly head again.”

Hardaway’s comments assume, of course, that the Tigers end up in the N.C.A.A. tournament. The team hurt its prospects for an at-large bid by missing its chance to beat Tennessee. It may end up having to win its conference tournament’s automatic bid to get in.

As things stand, Memphis’s next scheduled game is the conference opener at Tulane next Wednesday, but Tulane has canceled its past three games because of its own virus issues.

“Instead of racking up big wins, they’re racking up losses, which puts them in a bind when you go into conference play,” Gaston said of the team’s play before the Alabama win.

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