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Column: Barnes is Right Not to Want to Continue Memphis Series

Photo by Caitlyn Jordan/RTI

Tennessee and Memphis is about as fierce of a non-conference rivalry as you’ll find in men’s basketball. The two teams have a lot of bad blood between each other, and every time the two programs play, it seems like something else happens to drum up even more drama.

Last year marked the first time since 2013 that the two in-state foes had played, and it was a welcome sight to see the orange and blue facing off on the court again. Tennessee prevailed 102-92 in Memphis, and the two are set to play in Knoxville on December 14th of this year and again in Nashville for a neutral site contest next season.

But after that, it might be a while before Tennessee and Memphis play each other in the regular season again.

According to long-time Knoxville reporter Jimmy Hyams, Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said on Monday that he doesn’t envision the Vols-Tigers series being renewed beyond the 2020-21 season. UT and Memphis agreed to a three-year deal that started last year and ends next year, but negotiations for any future series were left undecided.

Barnes doesn’t want to see the rivalry continued beyond next season, at least for a little bit. Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway disagrees, though.

“I think it would be good for the state, for sure,” Hardaway said according to the Commercial Appeal. “Absolutely, because the state needs it. We really do.”

Seeing the intense match-ups between Tennessee and Memphis on the basketball court is a treat. It’s fun for fans, fun to cover, and it brings out the competitiveness from both teams. Things get heated, and the Vols-Tigers rivalry has produced plenty of highlights.

Unfortunately, it’s also brought out the worst in people, and that’s why Rick Barnes’ decision to not continue the series after next year makes sense.

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Last year, the main story after the Tennessee-Memphis game wasn’t the game itself; no, the hottest topic of conversation after the final buzzer had to do with comments made by both coaches, chiefly Penny Hardaway.

After the Vols’ 102-92 win over the Tigers, Hardaway said he believed Tennessee’s players had their “fists balled” and were ready to fight during a minor altercation during a timeout in the closing minute of the game. Tennessee’s Jordan Bone and the Tigers’ Alex Lomax and Jeremiah Martin were all whistled for technical fouls during the exchanging of words, but no physical altercations took place during the incident.

The following Monday, Barnes joked on the “Vol Calls” call-in radio show about Hardaway’s comments.

“Here’s what I want to ask, too: at any time Saturday did you ball your fist up and get ready to fight the other commentator?” Barnes commented to Bob Kesling during the show. Barnes would also say during the show that he and his coaches don’t teach his players to behave the way Hardaway was accusing them of acting.

After the game, Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone accused Memphis of flopping. Barnes said the Tigers’ players were “jumping back and this and that” and “trying to pick up fouls,” but never uttered the actual words “flop” or “flopping” like Bone did.

“It was definitely frustrating,” Bone said after the game. “We have a rule: when you have two fouls you have to sit down, especially in the first half. It was frustrating knowing I had to sit down on the bench. That was the scouting report. We knew they were going to come out and flop, and that’s what they did. The calls went their way early in the game.”

Hardaway took exception to those comments, and he fired back with some even stronger words.

“No, come on man, honestly, if you just watch the film I’m not making anything up,” Hardaway responded during a press conference the following day. “We even had it on the phone. I don’t know who Rick Barnes thinks I am, but I’m not a dude that’s going to mess around about anything. I just call it like I see it. No matter how he’s trying to make things seem, and I think its kind of low class how he’s trying to downgrade my guys for flopping and all that.

“Man, come on, give me a break.”

That wasn’t all Hardaway had to say, though.

“Maybe he wants to get the upper hand on me or whatever,” Hardaway stated. “I have no complaints about anything else, I just called it like I saw it, and the comments that he made about my team when it comes to the flopping and all that: That’s low class. I would never do that to another team.”

Hardaway would end his press conference by saying, “Rick Barnes, get the (expletive) out of here.”

Being competitive and bantering back and forth is one thing. Think back to what Steve Spurrier used to do with Tennessee football both when he was at Florida and South Carolina. While certainly frustrating to Vol fans, that never really crossed a line.

Penny crossed some lines.

Telling Barnes to “get the (expletive) of of here” is one thing, but to accuse Barnes’ players of trying to fight his team when there was no evidence of that ever shown is another. Hardaway questioned the character of Barnes’ players — which is something Barnes has made it clear he won’t stand for — and he also questioned the character of Barnes himself, calling him “low class” two different times.

I don’t blame Barnes one bit for not wanting to continue the series with Memphis after next season because of those very reasons.

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Is Barnes’ decision to not continue the series an overreaction? Probably a little, yes. Hardaway is wrong in saying the state “needs” this rivalry, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not disappointed it’s not going to happen again in 2021-22 or in the near future. The Tennessee-Memphis rivalry in men’s basketball is must-watch television, even for fans of other teams. I think it’s a series that should be played as often as it can.

At the same time, though, maybe it’s in everyone’s best interests to take a few years off from this.

Look no further than Tennessee’s women’s basketball team for an example that can shed some light on this situation. The Lady Vols failed to renew their rivalry with Connecticut after the 2007 season because of the relationship between UConn head coach Geno Auriemma and then-Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt. The things Auriemma allegedly said about the Tennessee program behind closed were more heinous than what Hardaway said publicly last year, but the overall point is the same: Does anyone blame Tennessee for not renewing their series with UConn for a while because of that?

The Lady Vols and Huskies will play each other later this season for the first time in 12 years. Tennessee has a new head coach, and the dust has settled a bit between the two programs. Granted, Auriemma is doing his best to try and stir things up again, but it’s still nice to see the two bitter rivals ready to face-off on the court again, and it was clear some time off between the two programs was needed.

Right now, Tennessee and Memphis just need a little time away from each other. This year’s game promises to be electrifying, and Thompson-Boling Arena will be a madhouse for this season’s contest. But after next year, a little break is probably best for everyone. It’s a bummer from an entertainment perspective, and I think both parties are at fault (one side much more than the other) for this coming to an end, but this isn’t a permanent goodbye by any means.

Barnes is right to want to discontinue playing Hardaway and Memphis for a while. Tennessee can use that spot to schedule another premier non-conference opponent like they’ve been doing the last few years. This has nothing to do with being “scared” of the Tigers. It’s all about pride and respect.

Canceling the Tennessee-Memphis series for the time being isn’t ideal for fans or media, but it’s probably the right move. When Hardaway or Barnes (or both) move on from their respective schools, then it’ll be time to revisit it. For now, Barnes’ decision makes sense.

Even if it is unfortunate.

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