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As Memphis Figures Things Out, the Emoni Bates Situation Looms

The Tigers have won six straight to flip a once-spiraling season—but the success has largely come without their most-hyped freshman.

CINCINNATI — Teams on the road in college basketball are usually hell-bent on getting out of town fast after a game. There is an impatient bustle in and around the visiting locker room as preparations are made to leave as quickly as possible.

With Memphis, not so much. It’s just one more way that Penny Hardaway operates differently.

Hardaway kept his team in the locker room for a long time Tuesday night after defeating Cincinnati 81–74. The muffled sounds coming through the door were animated and happy, as you’d expect from a team that just won its sixth straight. The Tigers took their time going over the game behind closed doors, then emerged for media engagements and to greet a few family members who had been in the stands.

While Hardaway was talking to his team and support staff was waiting outside, one program insider quietly voiced the looming question hanging over a season that has been all over the map: “What do they do with Bates?”

Emoni Bates shoots vs. SMU

Bates was a top-five recruit after reclassifying to 2021.

Emoni Bates is missing. The 6'9" wing player who made the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 15, billed by SI—and everyone else—as “next in line” after LeBron James and Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to be a global superstar, hasn’t played in three weeks. And the Tigers are thriving without him.

This is a curious case of a suddenly disposable savior.

The last time Bates suited up for Memphis was Jan. 27, when he played an unspectacular role in a victory over East Carolina. The season was in the tank at that point. The Tigers were 11–8, having plummeted out of the preseason top 12. They were acrimonious underachievers, the biggest bust in college basketball, a dysfunctional mess of misaligned talent. And Memphis’s generational phenom of a freshman was struggling as much as anyone.

Bates turned 18 the day after that East Carolina game, which explains some things. He was a prodigy rushed ahead by reclassification, painfully thin and painfully young. His father Elgin had coached him on a pop-up prep school team called Ypsi Prep, affiliated with Aim High Academy. The whole thing was created as a vehicle to showcase Bates, a ridiculous premise that has become accepted as a common outgrowth of modern youth basketball.

A 17-year-old with a stick-figure frame accelerated his high school graduation and made a late-August enrollment at Memphis. The transition has not gone as planned. (Jalen Duren, the physically mature post player, has been Memphis’s most valuable freshman.) Through January, Bates was averaging 10.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists—not terrible by any means, but not dazzling. The only category in which he led the team was turnovers per game, at 2.6.

In the haste to build a brand, Bates hadn’t been built into a fully formed player.

Then he abruptly went home to Michigan to have what his father later termed a “biomechanical” issue with his back addressed by a specialist. Speculation immediately bubbled up that Bates was done with Memphis—savior struggles, savior leaves. That turned out to be untrue.

Bates returned to campus and was on the sideline when it played Tulane on Feb. 9. He has been putting in time in the weight room and attending practice, according to teammates. “He’s been very attentive on the sideline at practice,” guard Lester Quinones says. “He’s happy for us that we’re winning; he doesn’t feel like we’re winning because we don’t have him.”

But his short-term future remains shrouded in uncertainty, and it’s unclear what his role will be when he’s ready to play.

I asked Hardaway whether his team is better without Bates. His answer: “I can’t say that. I think it’s the growth of the team—just like there’s growth in Emoni, talking to him every day while he’s rehabbing his back—there’s growth in all of us. There’s growth in me. I’m the guy who was orchestrating everything in the beginning. The team has just come together. The guys are just buying in as a group, so it makes it easier to win ballgames now. … Whenever he comes back, we’re going to welcome him.”

Guard Alex Lomax echoes that: “We can be that much better with him. He’s a great talent, has a great work ethic, and I think he’s a good fit to this team. We miss him and can’t wait until he gets back.”

But since Bates left the lineup, Memphis has played its best basketball of the season. He’s missed a total of seven games this year, and the Tigers are 6–1 in those games (4–0 in the most recent stretch). The highlight was a stunning upset win at Houston on Saturday, ending the Cougars’ 37-game home winning streak, and the Tigers backed that up with an authoritative victory here Tuesday night over the Bearcats.

They are solidifying amid a season riddled with roster churn: Only three players have appeared in every game, and none has started every game. Injuries and COVID-19 issues and the fragile nature of this chemistry experiment have kept things from coalescing. Memphis even lost an assistant coach, Rasheed Wallace, during the year.

But a season that was off the rails has been restored, for now. At 15–8, 9–4 in the American Athletic Conference, Memphis would probably make the NCAA tournament if bids were handed out today. While just squeezing into the bracket is hardly what anyone envisioned when this megatalented roster was assembled, it sure beats the alternative.

And in Year 4 under Hardaway, after landing two of the top five freshmen in the nation, the alternative would be unacceptable. But this has become the Penny Experience, which can produce just about anything at any given time.

Memphis coach Penny Hardaway yells

Hardaway is looking to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time.

If you are searching for a team to invest in for the next month or so, Memphis would be a great choice for entertainment value alone. It will keep you guessing.

The Tigers could go to the Final Four or the NIT. They will dazzle and infuriate, amuse and confuse, careen toward ruin then bounce back to look bulletproof. They will lose to bad teams and beat good ones. Hardaway will rip his players or the media some days, then love them up other days. Just when you think you have them figured out—ready for a coronation or a burial—they will abruptly veer the other way.

They are Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, in human form.

At Cincinnati, Memphis was all the good stuff. The Tigers led for the final 38 minutes and 38 seconds, dominating for most of that time. “We knew we had to punch early and keep punching,” Hardaway says.

They also had to hold on late, with just enough lapses to keep the Bearcats in it. The Tigers shot well, passed well, applied defensive pressure well—and yet manifested enough vulnerabilities to make it appear that no lead was secure, not even the 17-point one early in the second half. Cincinnati cut that lead to four late in the game but could get no closer.

Watching the Memphis bench during that game was an experience in its own right. The communication flows fast and furious—coach to player and coach to coach. An inexperienced hire, Hardaway has 81-year-old legend Larry Brown sitting a few chairs down, and Brown offers quite a bit of input. So does fellow assistant Cody Toppert, who is constantly in Hardaway’s ear. (At one point Toppert appeared to offer too much feedback, and Hardaway gave him some sharp words and then, softening, patted him on the top of his head.)

“You’ve got a wealth of knowledge over there watching what’s going on,” Hardaway said. “We know our strengths and we know our weaknesses.”

Playing the way it currently is, Memphis has many strengths. It has size, skill, athleticism and a lot of depth. That’s even without Bates. If he returns at the same 25 minutes per game he’d been getting, those are minutes other players are sitting.

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Maybe that would play out just fine for everyone. Maybe Emoni Bates is learning the value of perseverance when things don’t go your way, and maybe Memphis can take it up another notch if he returns to the lineup improved.

But the Tigers and Bates will have to prove it can work. Because right now it’s working well with one of the most hyped prospects in years not playing.

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