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Canzano: Penny Hardaway finds himself in a chess match against top-seed Gonzaga
Can Memphis stop Chet Holmgren?
PORTLAND — Penny Hardaway had some big moments on Friday at Moda Center. He stepped off the court after Memphis’ afternoon practice, walked down the arena hallway, climbed nine steps onto the NCAA Tournament news conference podium where he soon encountered a staggering question.
How do you stop Chet Holmgren?
Hardaway, 50, will face that task on Saturday when No. 9-seed Memphis plays the top overall seed in the men’s tournament. Gonzaga’s Holmgren is a match-up oddity and spectacular talent. He is 7-feet tall and 195 pounds.
The Gonzaga center had 17 rebounds, 19 points and five assists in the tournament-opening win on Thursday over Georgia State. He also blocked seven shots.
“He’s like plastic man,” said Hardaway. “He will get a rebound over you and then dunk the ball.”
On Friday, the Memphis coach talked about his failed recruitment of Holmgren, who was the top-ranked high school player in the 2021 class. Hardaway said he FaceTimed with him, called him, and texted him for more than a year despite knowing that Holmgren wasn’t ever coming to Memphis.
“I got really close with Chet,” Hardaway said.
The former NBA All-Star said he’s watched a lot of Holmgren on television this season. He recounted an open court play that Holmgren made against UCLA, dribbling in transition, taking the ball behind his back and dunking it.
“That’s a spectacular play for a seven footer,” Hardaway said. “We see it in the NBA all the time — we don’t see it in college.”
Memphis has won 13 of its last 15 games. The Tigers present an interesting obstacle for the Zags. But the Memphis players said on Friday that they don’t feel like Gonzaga presents a David-Goliath comparison.
Said guard Landers Nolley: “I feel like this is a No. 1 vs. No. 1.”
Hardaway heard about that and added, “I just don’t think that we’re a No. 9 seed.”
Holmgren and 6-foot-10 teammate Drew Timme present twin obstacles. I sat beside Memphis assistant Larry Brown — yes, that Larry Brown — during Gonzaga’s opening-round victory on Thursday. The Hall of Fame coach didn’t talk about Holmgren as much as he did Timme.
“Timme is my favorite player,” Brown told me. “He does everything right.”
The 81-year old Brown joined Hardaway’s staff last June. Brown is the only coach to win an NBA championship and an NCAA title in his career. He hasn’t been an assistant since 1967 under Dean Smith at North Carolina. Now, he’s Hardaway’s defensive strategist and game-plan tactician.
Disrupt Gonzaga’s front court.
Hardaway spoke on Friday about needing his post players to stay out of foul trouble. He lamented how “dangerous and fast” Gonzaga’s backcourt is playing with the perimeter spacing that the presence of Holmgren and Timme create. I left the news conference wondering what Memphis might try.
“I think you look at film and figure it out,” Hardaway said. “You just try to put them in tough situations.”
Alabama held Holmgren to a harmless 10 points in a win in December. Saint Mary’s held him to only six points in a February victory. You can bet Memphis’ staff is poring over those tapes, looking for clues.
One of the beautiful things about March Madness is the randomized match-ups it creates. Gonzaga-Memphis is a beauty, for example. But if Memphis had lost its first-round game you’d be reading instead about Boise State coach Leon Rice, who was a loyal Gonzaga assistant for 11 seasons.
The Tigers won, so you get Penny.
The four-time All-Star casts an interesting figure. Prior to being hired by Memphis, Hardaway was working as the head coach at Lester Middle School. He went 28-3 and took the Lions to the middle-school state title in Tennessee.
Four years later, he’s in the NCAA Tournament game-planning against Mark Few.
Hardaway has had some nice moments in his career. Before he was a first-round NBA Draft pick he starred in the movie “Blue Chips” alongside Shaq. Nike built an unforgettable “Lil Penny” advertising campaign around him. Hardaway had more than $120 million in earnings and now owns a barbershop, beauty salon and turf business.
The Zags have their eyes on a Final Four and a national title. If Gonzaga gets there, it will do so with every team gunning to solve Holmgren and knock them out.
What will Anfernee Hardaway do to disrupt Chet Holmgren? Memphis likes to play fast. The tempo often makes other teams uncomfortable. But how do you speed up an opponent that already wants to play at a blistering pace? How do you stop Holmgren from swatting you out of the tournament?
“I don’t know that,” Hardaway said. “I have another day to try to get this together.”