Billy Reed: UK upset, Memphis’ defiance of NCAA headline early days of basketball season

Billy Reed: UK upset, Memphis’ defiance of NCAA headline early days of basketball season
Billy Reed

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Had 7-foot freshman center James Wiseman kept his commitment to Kentucky instead of reneging in favor of Memphis, the chances are good the college basketball world wouldn’t be talking Wednesday about the Wildcats’ shocking 67-64 loss to Evansville in Rupp Arena.

And there’s no question that Memphis and Penny Hardaway, its second-year head coach, wouldn’t be at war with the NCAA for willfully and blatantly defying its eligibility rules. The mess already is in the court system, and the outcome could topple the NCAA as we always have known and endured it.

UK’s loss to Evansville, coached by ex-Wildcat center Walter McCarty, came only four days after Memphis had played Wiseman in a victory over Chicago-Illinois. Both exploded like bomb shells in a 2019-20 season that is barely under way.

The Purple Aces were 25-point underdogs to a Wildcat team that had been elevated to No. 1 in the national rankings the previous day. Coach John Calipari’s team earned that distinction by beating Michigan State, the preseason top-ranked team, in a Madison Square Garden double-header on Nov 5.

Maybe the Wildcats will regain No. 1 at some point in the season, but maybe not. Calipari’s 11th team since coming to UK from Memphis has its usual complement of one-and-done talent, but it also has some holes that may be unpluggable.

Of course, there is – ho-hum, yawn – the dearth of experience. The Wildcats have three upperclassmen, and one of them, junior Riley Welch, rarely plays. The others, 6-9 Bucknell graduate transfer Nate Sestina, and 6-11 junior Nick Richards, combined for 15 points and 11 rebounds against Evansville.

As those numbers indicate, the lack of a strong inside game is another of UK’s weaknesses. Granted, 6-10 sophomore EJ Montgomery didn’t play against Evansville due to an injury, but he was such a disappointment as a freshman that he had to delay his departure to the NBA by a year.

While this bomb was exploding in Lexington, Calipari’s former program at Memphis was aflame with something bigger and more important than a mere historic upset.

The crown jewel of what is considered the nation’s top recruiting class, Wiseman was potentially ineligible because in 2017, Hardaway, then a high school coach, paid for Wiseman’s family to move to Memphis. The NCAA classified Hardaway as a Memphis booster because he starred for the Tigers before going on to an All-Star career in the NBA, and because he has contributed to various Memphis projects.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Wiseman played for Hardaway’s high school team, but was headed to play for Calipari at UK until Hardaway was named the Tigers’ head coach. Hardaway’s switch to Memphis brought into play the fact that Hardaway had paid for his family’s moving expenses.

Rather than go through the appeals process, Memphis went to court and was granted an injunction against the NCAA. Against Chicago-Illinois, Wiseman scored 17 points, collared nine rebounds, and blocked five shots. That’s the kind of inside play that would have prevented UK’s loss to Evansville, not that anybody noticed.

At UK, Calipari had a similar situation with Enes Kanter, a Swiss-born player from Turkey who had a contract with Nike while he was playing professional ball as a teen-ager. When he moved to the U.S., the NCAA declared Kanter ineligible. The university went through the appeals process, but the NCAA wouldn’t budge and Kanter never played a second for the Wildcats. He was drafted third overall by Utah in the 2011 NBA draft and is now with the Boston Celtics.

Until now, the biggest scandal in Memphis hoops history came on Calipari’s watch. He coached the Tigers to the 2008 championship game, where they lost to Kansas. However, the NCAA ordered the runner-up finish to be vacated after it established that star Memphis player Derrick Rose had a substitute take his college entrance exams.

Earlier in his career, Calipari took Massachusetts to the 1996 Final Four, but that also was vacated because center Marcus Camby admitted to accepting illegal payments and gifts from an agent. In both the Camby and Rose cases, Calipari denied any knowledge of wrongdoing and was never penalized.

But it’s different for Hardaway, who can’t use ignorance as a defense. With the full support of the university’s president and athletics director, he ignored the rules and challenged the NCAA to do something about it. Which, of course, it will. If the courts uphold the NCAA, Hardaway will never coach college basketball again and Memphis will receive Draconian penalties.

With the 2019-20 season off to such an explosive start, it leaves one to wonder what else might transpire before the Final Four convenes in Atlanta next spring. Evansville won’t be there, but Kentucky might. As for Memphis, the Tigers could be on the court or in one.

Whatever, James Wiseman will be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA draft.

Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter and regular contributor of sports columns to WAVE3.com. Contact him at billyreedcolumns@gmail.com.

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