Sports are a regular reminder of the seasonal nature all things possess. Yet within them, there’s something that feels so constant. We’ve played Alabama every October since 1928. And if that number looks funny to you too, it’s because we’re coming up on the 100th consecutive such occasion, if you don’t count the minor inconvenience of World War II. We play Florida in September unless there’s a pandemic or a national tragedy. We’ve faced Kentucky in basketball every year since 1954. These are the games you want to win the most.
But none of our rivalries land so many punches on so few thrown, fists balled up or otherwise, than this one. Tennessee and Memphis have met a grand total of 27 times. Saturday will make 28. And we’re not sure when we’ll see 29.
For that, above all…we have to win this game.
We faced these stakes eight seasons ago, the last of eight in a row (plus one in Maui) featuring constant rhetoric from John Calipari and Josh Pastner. That set was tied 4-4 when the Tigers came to Knoxville to face Cuonzo Martin’s second team, jumped to a 21-point lead, and held on to win 85-80. (Remember the all-orange unis? I still like the idea.)
The last departure lasted six years, resolved with a three-game set starting in 2019. The Vols won that one 102-92, then we played its polar opposite in 2020, a 51-47 Memphis victory. Turns out no matter how much you want to win, it’s hard to do so shooting 4-of-26 from the arc.
And now this one in Nashville, which was calling to mind another game in this series.
Eleven seasons ago – Bruce Pearl’s last – a talented Tennessee team raced to a 7-0 start. Then they lost three straight to Oakland, Charlotte, and USC. They beat Belmont by one and Tennessee-Martin by six. And then they lost to College of Charleston by 13.
Meanwhile, Memphis was 11-2, their only losses to Kansas and Georgetown. The Tigers were ranked 21st, the Vols reeling and preparing to sit Pearl for his mandated SEC suspension.
And Tennessee’s talent won 104-84, a game the Vols led at one point by 36.
That was the polar opposite of this one, or so we thought. Memphis, with loads of talent, started the season 5-0. Then they were hammered by Iowa State. Then they lost to Georgia (KenPom #161), Ole Miss (#90), and Murray State (#89). Along the way, Penny Hardaway did an interview with Seth Davis at The Athletic which continues to break my brain. “We’ve got so much negativity in our locker room,” is merely the headline; I highly recommend the rest.
As a Tennessee fan, Memphis was in such a spiral it was concerning, because I worried playing us might be one of the few things left to motivate them. Turns out, playing #6 Alabama will do it too.
Memphis got right on Tuesday night with a 92-78 win at
the Bass Pro FedEx. Some of their consistent weaknesses remained, like committing 17 turnovers and allowing 14 offensive rebounds. Some of their consistent strengths did as well: Bama turned it over 20 times, and Memphis crashed with 13 offensive rebounds and 25 free throw attempts.
The biggest difference came on the other end of that equation: Alabama only got to the line a dozen times. The Tiger defense is still 306th nationally in free throw rate allowed, but they kept the Tide at bay for sure.
Tennessee, of course, shoots free throws at a lesser rate than almost any team in college basketball; Memphis isn’t the team to change that against. And they’ve always been long and potentially problematic to score on: lineups putting freshmen Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren on the floor together give them four players at 6’7″ or taller.
But the Vols, still rocking the nation’s best defense in KenPom, will look to feast on the Memphis offense. Iowa State and Ole Miss both forced turnovers on more than 25% of Tiger possessions. That’s the number the Vols average on the year.
In rivalry land, we put more emphasis on the mental than ever. Is Memphis fixed? Do they think they are? Are there any extra feelings left to be felt on Tennessee’s roster from the 2019 comments and the 2020 loss? And what of Kennedy Chandler, originally from Memphis, Tennessee?
But if we’re looking for steadiness, Rick Barnes is a good place to start. In rivalry games, he’s done better than anyone in my lifetime: 8-6 against Kentucky, 7-2 against Florida, 10-3 against Vanderbilt. We want this win, desperately, to close this chapter of the rivalry the right way. Barnes has earned our trust to carry the fight.
Saturday, high noon, Bridgestone Arena on ESPN2.