During the Big Orange Caravan’s stop in Memphis this weekend, Tennessee head basketball coach Rick Barnes was confident the Vols would renew their hoops rivalry with the Memphis Tigers.
“It’s going to happen,” Barnes said during the stop in Memphis. “We’ve just got to get the date ready, and whether we start here or start there.”
The series between the Vols and Tigers has been on hiatus since 2013, and that was thanks in large part to Memphis head coach John Pastner’s reluctance to play the Vols because he feared the series would help Tennessee’s recruiting too much. But now Pastner is gone, and former Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith is calling the shots for Memphis.
And Smith is much more open to the idea of the Vols and Tigers playing each other again.
“There’s not a guy in the business that I respect more than Tubby Smith,” Barnes stated. “We both know (renewing the rivalry) would be a good game for the state, and good for both universities.
“We’ve talked about it. We both know that we’re going to play that game.”
Vol fans have been clamoring for years for the Vols and Memphis to renew their rivalry. The two schools played each other annually from 1988 to 2001 and played each other every year between 2006-13. One of the most memorable games in Tennessee basketball history happened against the Tigers when the No. 2 Vols knocked off undefeated and No. 1 Memphis 66-62. Tennessee would claim their first ever No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll following that game.
Tennessee is 14-11 all-time against Memphis, and the series has seen 13 of the 25 games be decided by 5 points or less. It’s an exciting rivalry that benefits the fans and both programs.
That’s why it’s smart for Tennessee to renew the series. And it makes sense for Memphis too.
The Vols don’t have many true rivals in basketball like they do in football. Tennessee has annual rivalries with Alabama, Florida, and Georgia in football. Vanderbilt is probably considered a rivalry by most modern fans as well.
But when it comes to basketball, Tennessee only really has two rivals: Kentucky and Vanderbilt. And Kentucky has historically dominated the series against the Vols, winning 152 of the 220 contests the two teams of have played. The Vols’ basketball program needs another annual rival, and Memphis would be just that.
Vol fans proved during the Bruce Pearl era they will show up to see Tennessee basketball. They showed it throughout the Cuonzo Martin era as well. The only reason attendance has dropped off the way it has the last three seasons is because of both coaching and roster turnover and the fact that the Vols have failed to actually win many games. All that is a recipe for fan apathy.
But now that Rick Barnes appears to be righting the ship, Vol fans will most likely begin to buy in again. And what better way to excite the fan base than by renewing one of the most thrilling rivalries in recent program history?
It’s not just about the fans, though.
Pastner was right: Allowing the Vols to play in Memphis helps Tennessee’s recruiting. It would give the Vols a little better coverage in the fertile recruiting grounds of west Tennessee. But it won’t help the Vols as much as Pastner feared. Even when the Vols and Tigers played each other every year, recruiting in the Memphis area was still difficult for the Vols.
But it also should help the Tigers’ recruiting on the other side of the state and nationally as well. Because when these two teams get together, they’re almost always in prime time on national television, something both teams haven’t seen a lot of recently.
Both schools could use the excitement and exposure this rivalry entails. Neither team has made the NCAA Tournament since 2014, and both have produced some lackluster and forgettable seasons the last few years. For Tennessee, renewing the annual rivalry would help in re-energizing a fan base that has grown frustrated over the last few years. That and continuing to improve the roster.
Renewing the annual rivalry with Memphis would be a smart move on Tennessee’s part. And it finally looks like Memphis is willing and open to the idea as well.