What to Know: No. 3 Tennessee at Memphis

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    (Photo via Mark Weber/Commercial Appeal)

    No. 3 Tennessee (7-1) heads across the state to take on in-state rival Memphis (5-4) for the first time since 2013. The in-state rivalry has been reignited, and the Vols and Tigers will clash in a sold out FedEx Forum on Saturday.

    The Vols are fresh off a huge 76-73 victory over No. 1 Gonzaga on Sunday that saw them jump up from No. 7 in the AP Poll to No. 3, their highest ranking since they were No. 1 briefly in 2008 after defeating No. 1 Memphis. The Tigers are on a two-game winning streak and just defeated UAB 94-76 last Saturday.

    Both teams have had plenty of time to rest since their last game, and both teams should be amped up for this game.

    Former Memphis head coach Josh Pastner elected to end the in-state series between the Tigers and Vols, but now the two teams are playing for the first time in five years. Tennessee holds a slight edge over Memphis in the rivalry, winning 14 of the 25 contests between the two teams. Memphis, however, has a three-game win streak over the Vols currently.

    Memphis has lost both games they’ve played against ranked opponents so far this season. They fell to No. 22 LSU 85-76 back in mid-November, and they lost 78-67 to No. 20 Texas Tech to begin the month of December. The Vols have beaten every unranked opponent they’ve played this season.

    First-year head coach and former Memphis player Penny Hardaway is building an exciting future for the Tigers’ basketball program, but this year’s squad is relatively young and undersized. But he’s brought excitement back to the Tigers’ program, and west Tennessee is more than ready for Saturday’s contest.

    Here’s everything you need to know about Tennessee’s match-up with Memphis this Saturday.

    Not Very Big

    The Tigers can score effectively and like to shoot threes. But they don’t have the kind of size that should be able to compete with Tennessee’s height and girth down low.

    Memphis doesn’t start a player over 6-foot-8, and two of their starters are under 6-feet tall. Tyler Harris — who the Vols pursued in the 2018 recruiting cycle — is their point guard, and he leads the team with 16.2 points per game and a 39.5 percent shooting percentage from three. But he measures in at only 5-foot-9, and fellow Memphian and freshman Alex Lomax is only 5-foot-10.

    Kyvon Davenport is 6-foot-8, but Jeremiah Martin is just 6-foot-2, and key bench player Kareem Brewton Jr. is 6-foot-3.

    The Tigers make up for their lack of size by shooting a lot of threes. Memphis averages 21.8 three-point attempts per game, but they’re making just 31.1 percent of those threes.

    Surprisingly, Memphis actually rebounds the ball well on the offensive side of the ball despite their small statue. The Tigers have pulled down 124 offensive boards on the year, which is good for 46th in Division I basketball. For comparison, the Vols have just 92 offensive rebounds on the year.

    Pesky Defenders

    Tennessee’s team defense is one of the better defenses in the country. Overall, Memphis won’t be mistaken for a defensive juggernaut, but they’ve been tricky enough on defense to cause teams issues this season.

    The Tigers have forced 164 turnovers on the year, ranking them 44th in the country in that regard. The Vols, meanwhile, have only turned the ball over 95 times all season. That’s the 21st-best total in all of college basketball.

    Though Memphis has been good at forcing turnovers, they’ve been bad in a lot of other areas on defense.

    Memphis is giving up 78.6 points per game to opponents, which is one of the worst averages in Division I. They’re also one of the worst defenses in the country in overall field goal percentage (289th) and opponent three-point percentage (293rd).

    If Tennessee can limit their turnovers, they should be able to put up a decent amount of points against the Tigers. And they better, because Memphis is averaging 80 points a game on offense.

    First True Road Test

    Saturday’s contest will be Tennessee’s first true road game of the season. The Vols have played Louisville, Kansas, and Gonzaga on neutral courts, but they’ve yet to play in a true road environment.

    FedEx Forum holds over 18,000 fans, so UT better be ready for a loud and truly hostile environment on Saturday. There should be a good amount of orange in the stands, but the majority of the Forum will be filled with blue.

    Tennessee is just 1-8 over the last nine seasons in their first true road game of the year. That lone wine over the last nine years came last season when the Vols beat Georgia Tech 77-70 in Atlanta.

    The Vols will look to follow last year’s pattern and not the eight years prior when they take on Memphis. Last year, the Vols were 8-4 in true road games.

    Avoid a Letdown

    After last Sunday’s victory over Gonzaga, Tennessee has just five wins over the No. 1 team in the country in their program’s history. And in all but one of those cases, the Vols were able to keep their heads on straight in the next game and avoid a bad loss.

    When the Vols defeated No. 1 Kansas in 2010, they followed that up with an 81-55 beat down of Auburn in their next game. In 1969, Tennessee started out the season with a victory over No. 1 South Carolina and won their next game against Centenary. In 1966, the Vols ended the season with a 69-62 win over No. 1 Kentucky and didn’t have a game after that one.

    The only time the Vols have lost after beating the No. 1 team in the country came in 2008. Tennessee took down No. 1 Memphis 66-62, picked up the No. 1 ranking themselves that Monday, then immediately lost that ranking by losing on the road to No. 18 Vanderbilt, 72-69.

    The Vols will look to avoid what happened in 2008 and channel those 2010 and 1969 teams instead.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.