Flyers’ Crutcher excited about chance to play hometown team in NIT

Dayton, Memphis will meet at noon Saturday

Penny Hardaway thought he met Jalen Crutcher for the first time when the future Dayton Flyers star Crutcher was in middle school. Crutcher said Wednesday it was even earlier. He said he was in elementary school when he met the Memphis basketball legend.

In fact, they first crossed paths far earlier. On July 18, 1999, the day Jalen was born and the day Hardaway turned 27, the Hardaway family was leaving a Memphis hospital with their newborn son Jayden, born two days earlier, as the Crutchers were entering the hospital.

Jalen’s parents, Greg and Sheila, told that story to the Commercial Appeal in Memphis this week.

“Yeah, the nurses were telling us, ‘There goes Penny Hardaway with his son.’” Greg told the newspaper. “We saw him leaving as we came in. It was crazy.”

Jayden is now a redshirt sophomore guard for his dad’s team at Memphis. Crutcher wasn’t born when Hardaway played for the Memphis Tigers from 1991-93, and he was 11 when Hardaway’s NBA career ended in 2008, but he knows what Hardaway means to his hometown.

“He’s the best player to come out of Memphis,” Crutcher said. “Well respected. Everybody loves Penny in Memphis.”

Crutcher got to know Hardaway when he lived in Memphis and visited him two years ago when the Tigers played in Cincinnati. He brought teammates Obi Toppin, Trey Landers and Josh Cunningham to the game along with his mom Sheila. They were also there to see Crutcher’s cousin, Jeremiah Martin.

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On Saturday, Crutcher and Hardaway will see each other again as Dayton (14-9) plays Memphis (16-8) in the first round of the NIT at UNT Coliseum on the campus of the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas. The game starts at noon and will be televised by ESPN.

When the bracket was announced Sunday night, Crutcher wasn’t watching ESPN. He heard about the matchup quickly, though.

“My phone was blowing up,” Crutcher said.

Playing his hometown team is a bonus for Crutcher even though the game won’t take place in the NCAA tournament. He remembers watching the great Memphis teams led by Derrick Rose. He wasn’t bothered that Memphis, then coached by Tubby Smith, didn’t recruit him.

More importantly, this is another game for a team that wanted to keep playing after losing 73-68 to Virginia Commonwealth in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament on March 5 in Richmond, Va.

“My mom always thought we were going to play again,” Crutcher said. “She never thought that the last game was against VCU. My mom is really excited. I know the team is excited. So we’re going to go out there and try to win it.”

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Dayton received an invitation to the NIT in part because Duke, Louisville, Xavier, St. John’s and Seton Hall all turned down bids. Dayton coach Anthony Grant said he discussed with the players what they would do if they received an invitation.

“It was about giving our guys an opportunity to decide what it was they wanted to do,” Grant said. “To a man, their decision was they wanted to continue to play together if that opportunity presented itself. So for us, that was a pretty easy choice.”

Dayton took a break after its loss to VCU and then got back to work in case it received a NIT bid. It’s a chance for the young players to experience the postseason for the first time and one more chance for the seniors to represent their school.

“That’s an honor,” Grant said. “Obviously, the NIT is almost like a secondary prize, so to speak, considering the NCAA tournament is the goal. But anytime you get a chance to play in the postseason, that’s a privilege. Less than a third of the teams across the country get that opportunity.”

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