University of Memphis coach Josh Pastner doesn’t look at it as a rivalry.
He hesitated to even use the word earlier this week when talking about the second game between the Tigers and Tennessee this season.
“It’s an in-state game, so you can throw out the stats,” Pastner said. “That’s just one of those things. Everyone’s gonna play well for both teams.”
Indeed, any time Memphis and Tennessee meet, it’s a virtual certainty that both teams will play each other tougher for territorial bragging rights. But just how much longer these in-state games will continue is to be determined.
Last summer, Pastner, one of the least offensive coaches in college basketball, made a cannonball-sized splash when he said on a Knoxville radio station that he wished to discontinue the series between the two programs, which ends next year in Knoxville.
Now-outgoing Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, however, said afterward he enjoys the series and will do his part to ensure the series lives on.
“I know the fans probably like it,” Pastner said. “I just have felt that, why help any teams that wanna recruit in Memphis all the time? That being said, they’re on our schedule so we have to play them and they’re a good team.”
Last month, the Vols landed Jarnell Stokes, a five-star power forward and early enrollee from Memphis, the first time a player from Memphis left the city for Tennessee since Tony Harris in 1997. Stokes is not expected to play against the Tigers.
“As I’ve told everybody before, we are gonna recruit Memphis and we are not gonna sign everybody from Memphis,” Pastner said. “Not everybody is gonna be the right fit for Memphis, and not everybody is gonna wanna come to Memphis from Memphis. I think we’ve had a pretty good track record for guys we wanted, where we said, ‘OK, we’re locked in on.’”
From sophomore guard Will Barton’s vantage point, the series is historically significant.
“Tennessee and Memphis, that’s a huge game going back in history, so no team wants to lose or get embarrassed,” Barton said. “I know they’ll come out fighting.”
There could be more to Pastner’s words than simply giving Tennessee a leg up in Memphis recruiting, though. The Vols, despite never having reached a Final Four, own the series over Memphis, 14-9.
In fact, the Tigers haven’t beaten Tennessee at home since an 88-79 win in 2006.
Moreover, Tennessee, in its current state, serves no tangible benefit to Pastner and the Tigers, as the Vols’ RPI is in the bottom quadrant of the country at 279, according to RealTimeRPI.com. A win against Tennessee is hardly a signature one, and a loss could put a sizable black mark on Memphis’ postseason resume.
“It’s a fun game, but it’s not one of these games where it’s all-in-all,” Pastner said. “When the game’s over, we’ve got Saturday (against UAB) and we open up conference (play). We need to try to win Conference USA. That’s the bottom line.”
The Tigers beat the Vols, 99-97, in double overtime in Maui two months ago. Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon made the Tigers’ frontcourt look like lightweights and went off for 32 points and 20 rebounds, setting a Maui Invitational record for most rebounds in one game.
Since then, however, Memphis is almost an entirely new team. Junior forward Ferrakohn Hall became eligible on Dec. 17 and has helped the Tigers’ rebounding cause significantly and will almost certainly do his part to prevent the Vols from pulling down 47 rebounds again.
The Tigers also switched sophomore Joe Jackson, who missed last Saturday’s game against Charlotte due to a “personal matter”, over to the two-guard position and inserted sophomore Chris Crawford at the point. Sophomore guard Antonio Barton started in Crawford’s place last Saturday and scored 16 points in the 67-58 win.
As for the real impact of tomorrow’s game, Pastner, as has been his MO, stopped short of placing a heavier emphasis on Tennessee than any other opponent.
“For us, as I’ve said many times, this is our last tune-up for conference play,” Pastner said. “That’s why we played our non-conference schedule that we had, making sure we’re ready and prepared for conference play.”