Tennessee vs Memphis: The End of a Basketball Rivalry?

The 13 Memphis Tigers’ win over 19 Tennessee on Saturday ended the Volunteers’ streak of 31 consecutive home wins and started a conversation on whether this in-state rivalry will be continued in the coming years. 

It makes perfect sense for the Vols and Tigers to play each season. The game is a natural rivalry that pits east Tennessee against west Tennessee. Such regional interest can certainly draw attention and a crowd. Furthermore, this matchup brings together two schools with basketball programs that have become increasingly prominent. Thus, as yesterday’s game proved, the Tigers and Vols has the potential to be a headlining, nationally televised event.

There are several reasons why this series should be continued. So, why is there talk of calling it quits?

According to ESPN’s Myron Medcalf, discontinuing the Tennessee-Memphis game could have something to do with comments that Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway made following his loss to the Vols last season. He writes, “After last year’s loss to Tennessee, Hardaway accused Tennessee players of approaching his players with ‘fists balled’ and called Barnes ‘low class’ for complaining about flopping in the Vols’ 102-92 win. He also said, ‘I’m not a dude who likes to mess around about anything,’ a comment directed at Barnes.” 

Certainly, one can understand that these comments may have rubbed Barnes and the UT administration and fanbase the wrong way. Even Hardaway admits that his reaction to the game “‘wasn’t a good look’” (Medcalf). However, he urges everyone to see past his emotionally charged response and realize that continuing the series is the best for all involved. 

Not surprisingly, he cites reasons similar to those listed above in support of drafting a new contract with Tennessee for future games. Following the game yesterday, he said, “‘[T]his rivalry needs to stay, not because we won today but because it’s just a great rivalry. So many people that live in Memphis that went to (Tennessee) that I know. Family that went to (Tennessee). . . . There’s ties both ways. Even though it kind of got out of hand last year, I think it should continue’” (Medcalf). 

Of course, we can expect that games between rival schools, especially two of Tennessee and Memphis’s caliber, will always be on the verge of “getting out of hand.” Therefore, it is logical to question whether last season’s post-game issues are really behind Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes’s reluctance to comment on any plans to enter a new contract with Memphis in the immediate future. 

On this matter, Barnes said, “‘I’m not saying we will or we won’t (extend the series). I’ve got respect for Memphis. I know all about the history of Memphis basketball. I know a lot about Penny Hardaway .  . . . We’re always going to do what we think is right for us’” (Medcalf).  

Barnes’s last sentence is the correct thing to say in front of reporters, but it does leave the door open for negative speculation. This leads to the question of the hour: Is renewing the rivalry with Memphis for another three years “right,” or good, for the Tennessee basketball program?

There are three facts that we must consider when answering this question: 

  • Memphis hired Penny Hardaway as head coach before the 2018-19 season;
  • By the beginning of the following season, Hardaway secured the top recruiting class in the nation;
  • Five of the ten new additions to the Tigers’ roster are from either Memphis or Nashville.

Rick Barnes is, no doubt, familiar with these facts. They are likely the reasons why he was, to quote Medcalf, “noncommital” when discussing the future of the series with Memphis. 

Although Memphis has a rich history in college basketball, the influx of top recruits  suggests that Hardaway’s return to his alma mater may bring a new era of national prominence to the Tigers. Moreover, their 9-1 start this season, with the win over then-19th ranked Tennessee, demonstrates that Hardaway’s squad can compete. 

This is especially true given that their win over the Vols came when they were shorthanded. The presence of center James Wiseman (19.7 points per game, 10.7 rebounds per game) and Lester Quinones (10.3 ppg and 3.5 assists per game) may have widened the gap between the Vols and Tigers. 

This may be what Barnes has in mind when he thinks about what is right for Tennessee where it concerns Memphis. 

At this point, there is nothing for the Vols to gain by playing Memphis every year other than potential bragging rights. Hardaway’s first recruiting class showed that he has the ability to secure the best players in Memphis and Nashville. Tennessee cannot afford to miss out on talented recruits from the western end of the state who see the Tigers compete with, and even beat, the Vols each year.

As this season has shown, Tennessee, while being a top-25 program, is not at the place where they can reload their roster immediately after losing top-level talents such as Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. There will still be rebuilding years in Knoxville.

With this being the case, as much as Penny Hardaway wants to see the Memphis-Tennessee series continue next year, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t. 

Published by collegehoopswriter

Husband to Alana (my much better half), daddy to Abe (the best boy ever), vociferous coach, enthusiastic teacher, part-time genius, and one heck of a writer

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