MEMPHIS -- America's college basketball consciousness is overwhelmed by images of Indiana's Calbert Cheaney, Kentucky's Jamal Mashburn, Duke's Grant Hill or Michigan's Chris Webber as the nation's best player. Get 'em all out of here, says Cincinnati Coach Bob Huggins.

Huggins sees Memphis State's Anfernee Hardaway on a regular basis in the Great Midwest Conference, and Huggins matter-of-factly calls him "the best player in America.

"He can do more things better than anyone in the country -- he can score, rebound, pass, and he can really sit down and guard you," said Huggins, a practitioner of serious defense who goes a seemingly heretical step further when talking about Hardaway. He says any NBA team that fails to select Hardaway will end up feeling the same way the Portland Trail Blazers do about selecting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984.

A 6-foot-7, 200-pound junior, Hardaway defies categorization by position. Viewed by NBA scouts as a point guard, he has played all five spots at various times this season. The comparisons to another NBA great -- Magic Johnson -- are irresistable. Tall point guards just don't come along that often. Hardaway understands, and he doesn't shy away.

"I love Magic to death, and he's one of my idols, but I think I can be better than Magic," he said. "I feel that I can do some things better than he was doing them {in college}. But I'm not a boastful person. I'm not going to say I'm better than he is because he's done things that I want to do. He's won championships at every level and that's something I haven't done."

But Hardaway has ended this regular season first in the six-team Great Midwest in scoring (22.8 points per game) and rebounding (8.7), second in assists (6.7) and steals (2.2), and third in blocked shots (1.3). He has a unique combination of career-bests: 37 points, 15 rebounds, 14 assists, 7 steals, 5 blocks.

He's the main reason the Tigers have overcome the loss of 6-9 sophomore forward David Vaughn, a starter who sustained a season-ending knee injury in their first game. With Vaughn, they were regarded as a borderline top-10 team. Without Vaughn, they are still 19-10.

Hardaway has helped Memphis State in ways that can't only be measured in wins and losses. Last Monday, Memphis State led St. Louis by 20 points at halftime, but with 6.8 seconds to play the margin was just 73-72. Out of timeouts, St. Louis fouled Memphis State center Anthony Douglas. He made only the first of two free throws, making the score 74-72, and St. Louis's Scott Highmark controlled the rebound.

However, before Highmark could advance beyond halfcourt, Hardaway casually fouled him with 4.6 seconds left. Memphis State's coaches and fans were incredulous. What could Hardaway possibly have been thinking?

"We were only up two, and the way they were shooting the ball {St. Louis had shot 56 percent in the second half}, I didn't want {Highmark} to come down and shoot a crazy three-pointer and hit," Hardaway said. "Then, we'd lose. If he went to the free throw line and hit both of them, the worst that we get is a tie. We could have called time out with four seconds left, run an out-of-bounds play and tried to win ourselves.

"I wanted him to shoot the free throws. I knew he was like an 80 percent shooter {Highmark entered the game shooting 80.8 percent from the foul line}. I didn't care. He's on the road, and there's a lot of pressure on the road no matter how good a free throw shooter you are. And with the crowd yelling at you, you don't know what can happen."

Highmark missed the first free throw. He purposely missed the second. Memphis State's Billy Smith got the rebound, was fouled and made one of two free throws. St. Louis couldn't get off another shot. Memphis State won 75-72. Hardaway ended up with 31 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocked shot.

"I wasn't too happy about {the foul} at the time," Memphis State Coach Larry Finch said. "But it was pretty smart on his part. It shows you how he always stays ahead of the game."

Although Hardaway remains noncommittal for now, most NBA people believe he will turn pro this year. Finch talks about wanting to make sure Hardaway is mentally and physically strong enough to play in the NBA. But Finch hastened to add that if it becomes apparent Hardaway will be the first or second player drafted this year, "I'll say, 'Bye. See ya later.' "

It would complete a whirlwind three years for Hardaway, a Memphis native whose first name and nickname are as much a part of his story as his basketball skills. He was named Anfernee because his mother knew somebody in high school who had that name, and she just liked it. He said he became known as "Penny" because his grandmother called him "Pretty," but "my friends thought she was calling me Penny, and I never did correct them."

This has proven a great boon to Memphis State's sports information department, which has put together a clever promotional piece touting Hardaway for national player of the year honors. It's a round pamphlet with a copper-colored cover that appears to have Hardaway's likeness engraved on the front and that of the Pyramid, Memphis State's striking arena, on the back. A penny -- with color pictures and lots of Hardaway facts and stats inside.

However, Hardaway came close to never playing for the Tigers. He failed to meet the NCAA freshman eligibility requirements commonly known as Proposition 48; his freshman year at Memphis State did not pass without incident either. In April 1991, he was shot in the right foot after he and a friend were robbed outside the North Memphis house of Hardaway's cousin, LaMarcus Golden, now a freshman guard at Tennessee.

Hardaway said Golden had left his wallet in a car in which Hardaway and his friend were traveling. When Hardaway's friend got out of the car to bring Golden's wallet into the house, he was stopped by four men asking for directions. The men proceeded to pull guns and force Hardaway and his friend to lay face down in the street while taking their valuables, including Hardaway's friend's tennis shoes.

"I thought they were going to kill us," Hardaway said. "Because we saw their faces, I thought they were going to shoot us after they took everything they wanted. I was just praying that they wouldn't shoot me."

Initially, they didn't. But after starting to drive away, they began firing back toward Hardaway and his friend. One of the bullets ricocheted off the street and struck Hardaway in the foot, fracturing three metatarsal bones.

He recovered in time to begin practice with the Tigers on Oct. 15, but did not have the bullet removed until about two weeks later. The injury and the year of ineligibility affected only his shooting. He shot just 43 percent from the field, but averaged 17.4 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2.6 steals. He was named Great Midwest player of the year and was on the group of collegiate players who trained last summer with the Dream Team.

Meanwhile, he began getting his academics in order. He made the dean's list last spring and again in the fall. He is on track to graduate in four years.

Because of his Proposition 48 status, Hardaway said, "people thought I was just flat-out dumb, couldn't do my work and all I wanted to do was play basketball. I knew I could do the work, but I didn't want to. For me to sit out my freshman year hurt me bad, but I learned a lot from it. I learned that I had to start doing my work, and that people weren't going to give me anything."

On the basketball court, people have no choice but to give things to Hardaway -- like whatever he wants.

"You always hear guys out there moaning and groaning saying, 'You guard the guy. You guard him,' trying to put the load on the next man," Memphis State senior forward Kelvin Allen said. "But it doesn't matter who guards him. It's going to be the same result. He's just going to pick them apart, no question about it."

St. Louis's 5-11 freshman guard Carlos McCauley, who had to guard Hardaway last Monday -- and looked like Muggsy Bogues trying to guard Magic Johnson -- had no argument.

"I watched the Memphis State games on television last year," McCauley said. "You watch him on TV, and it's like, 'Man, how does he do that?' And then you get here and you're like, 'Oh, I see how he does it.' "

As Hardaway has gotten better, so have his teammates, many of whom are gifted in their own rights. Billy Smith, a 6-5 senior guard, is averaging 16.5 points per game this season.

He has tremendous offensive skills and leaping ability, but, he said, Hardaway has "made my game go up a couple of notches because of the way he finds me in the right types of positions. He knows each individual on this team, what they shoot best and the things they do in certain parts of the game."

Majoring in education and minoring in business, Hardaway talks of becoming an elementary school teacher. But those days could be a long way off.

"I look at it like this: If I could come back to school, win a national championship, get a degree and then make the money, that would be great," he said. "But then I look at it the other way -- I can go {pro} this year, make the money, come back and get a degree and live a happy life."

That's Anfernee Hardaway -- always ahead of the game.