After just one season, Tubby Smith has made a mess at Memphis, as six of his top eight players are transferring – and it all could have been avoided.
“When Tubby Smith was hired, he inherited a situation that should have been interpreted as a gift, and he saw it, for whatever reason, as an issue,” CBS Sports college hoops guru Gary Parrish said on CBS Sports Radio’s Tiki and Tierney. “He had the father of his two best players and two other future likely McDonald’s All-Americans on his staff. Tubby wanted to bring his own assistants from Texas Tech, and then his son was an administrative role at Texas Tech, but he wanted to make him a full-time assistant. In college basketball, you only get three of those. So when faced with the decision to either promote his son to a full-time assistant or maintain Keelon Lawson as a full-time assistant, he decided to promote his son and demote Keelon Lawson.”
Lawson, needless to say, wasn’t happy.
“Keelon said all the right things publicly, but privately, he felt wronged,” Parrish said. “Part of the deal when he was hired at Memphis was, ‘We’ll make you a full-time assistant if you bring your kids to the University of Memphis.’ To use Keelon’s words, ‘I held up my end of the deal. The University of Memphis did not.’ So it leads to last week him announcing that his boys, Dedric and K.J., who are Memphis’ two best players by far . . . were going to transfer.”
The Lawson brothers, who combined for 31.5 points, 19.0 rebounds, 6.1 assist and 2.5 blocks last year, are transferring to Kansas.
“What makes this even more of an issue is that once those two (leave), well, then the other players realize that they’re not going to be very good next year,” Parrish said. “So now, Markel Crawford, who might have done this either way – but certainly was never going to return without Dedric and K.J. Lawson – is going to be a grad transfer and he’s out. Six of Memphis’ top eight players have already announced that they are transferring. Right now, only two scholarship players who were on last year’s team are set to be on next year’s team.”
Think that’s bad? Well, it gets worse.
“Keelon Lawson isn’t just the father of Dedric and K.J. lawson,” Parrish said. “He’s got a son named Chandler Lawson, who’s a top-20 player in the class of 2019, he’s got a son named Jonathan Lawson, who is a top-10 player in the class of 2021, and a nephew named D.J. Jeffries, who also lives in the area, who’s a top-10 player in the class of 2019. In other words, if all you did was keep Keelon Lawson on staff, he would have delivered five consensus top-50 recruits, four of whom were likely going to (become) McDonald’s All-Americans. Now you burnt that bridge completely, and there’s not much to be optimistic about at the University of Memphis right now.”
Parrish then provided historical context on Memphis’ program.
“At the end of the day, college basketball is a players’ game,” Parrish said. “It is hard to be good without good players. Not only have you essentially run off your top two (players); you’ve eliminated a reasonable opportunity to recruit literally the three best prospects coming through the city of Memphis in the next few years. The only coach in my lifetime – and I’m 40 years old – who has ever succeeded at Memphis without relying heavily on Memphis players is John Calipari, and that’s because he could go to Baltimore and get the top kid, he could go to Atlanta and get the top kid, he could go to Detroit and get the top kid, he could go to Chicago and get the right kid. He’s John Calipari. Every other coach has had to rely heavily on Memphis players, and right now, Memphis has no in-roads with any of the local talent primarily because of the way the Keelon Lawson situation was handled.”
Smith, it seems, plans to recruit three-star kids who can compete for an NCAA Tournament bid in a few years. There’s just one problem.
“The issue with that philosophy is that at Memphis, the fan base has never been happy recruiting three-year prospects and trying to be good,” Parrish said. “They’ve always recruited four- and five-star prospects and tried to be great. Right now, that’s not happening at all. If Tubby Smith is going to be successful here, he’s really going to try to do it, it seems like, in a different way, and that different way has never really worked – again, unless you’re John Calipari.”