The talk around the state of Tennessee this week hasn’t surrounded Mike Norvell leaving the Memphis football program to take over as Florida State’s new head coach. Nor has it been that the Vols are back in a bowl game for the first time since 2016 in football.
Instead, it’s the match-up between No. 13 Memphis (8-1) and No. 19 Tennessee (7-1) that has the Volunteer State buzzing.
“I’m not sure there’s a better basketball state in the country,” Rick Barnes said Tuesday during a media availability. “Certainly every state goes through their ups and downs, but the state of Tennessee has had great basketball for a long time.”
Both the Tigers’ and Vols’ programs are on the uptick. Memphis signed the No. 1 overall recruiting class in the country over the offseason, while the Vols just inked the current No. 4 overall recruiting class in the 2020 cycle as the program moves on to the next chapter following the departures of Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, and Kyle Alexander.
Barnes was able to help negotiate a three-game series with former Memphis head coach Tubby Smith when the veteran head coach arrived in Knoxville. Smith’s tenure didn’t go according to plan, but the series still moved along.
Schofield propelled No. 3 Tennessee to a 102-92 win in the Grind City over Memphis last season in what was the first game of the series. The current Washington Wizard poured in 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Williams had 19 points and Bone added 17 points.
Those three won’t be playing on Saturday afternoon in Thompson-Boling, but neither will two key Tigers that Penny Hardaway expected to have available when he signed them.
James Wiseman, the potential No. 1 overall draft pick in the upcoming 2020 NBA Draft, is currently serving a 12-game suspension for taking money from Hardaway in high school to move from Nashville to Memphis before Hardaway was hired as head coach. The Tigers’ second-year head coach will also be without starting guard Lester Quinones, who broke his hand earlier this season in a win over Ole Miss. Quinones started the first six games of the season leading up to his injury and was averaging 10.3 points per game.
“They’re definitely a different team because you have a guy (Wiseman) of that caliber (out),” Barnes responded when asked about Memphis working around the absence of Wiseman. “But I don’t think they’ve missed a beat in terms of what they want to do and how they’re going to play.”
Memphis has stayed in rhythm despite the absence of Wiseman because he wasn’t the sole reason Hardaway signed the No. 1 class in the country. Hardaway signed seven players in the 2019 class, all of which were ranked inside the top 115 prospects in the 247Sports Composite ratings.
Precious Achiuwa (No. 15 overall) has been the team’s leading scorer (13.9 points per game) in Wiseman’s absence, while DJ Jeffries (No. 52 overall) is the team’s second leading scorer at 12.0 points. Achiuwa is also the team’s leading rebounder, grabbing 9.6 boards per game.
It doesn’t end with the forward duo of Achiuwa and Jeffries, however. Guard Boogie Ellis (No. 38 overall) was headed to Duke until Tre Jones decided to return for his sophomore season with the Blue Devils. Ellis and his 9.7 points per game pair with Alex Lomax (9.1 ppg), Tyler Harris (9.0 ppg), and Damion Baugh (4.9 ppg) to form arguably the most talented backcourt in the country.
“Penny (Hardaway) has done a terrific job,” Barnes said. “I think he’s done a great job coaching those guys, because it’s not easy when you have to start with as many young players as he’s had.
“He certainly has some players back, but he’s done a great job. He really has. They’re a group of guys that play hard. They’re going to make you handle the ball. They do a lot of good things. You look at their schedule, their wins, it tells you that he’s done a great job with them.”
After last year’s game, the storylines didn’t end when the final buzzer sounded to give Tennessee a 15-11 lead in the all-time series. Hardaway accused Barnes’ team of approaching the Memphis bench with closed fists, and after Barnes made a joke about the Tigers flopping, Hardaway told Barnes to “get the (expletive) out of here” in his next media availability.
Barnes isn’t acknowledging any hard feelings leading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. tip-off.
“We haven’t talked. But that’s not unusual,” Barnes said. “I just think people have tried to make something out of nothing. I’ve got great respect for what he’s done, and I know what he means to Memphis and the program he has built there.”