Tennessee, Memphis Preparing For Rubber Match In Midstate

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    Tennessee and Memphis renew their instate rivalry Saturday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. It’s a rivalry that’s scenen a double overtime game, No. 1 vs. No. 2, balled fist and postgame explicites.

    The history of this off-and-on rivalry and the uncertainty of its future gives a little extra juice to Saturday’s game. It’s the third and final installment of the current three-game contract and Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes has been non-committal about renewing the series since Tigers’ head coach Penny Hardaway told the media that Barnes needs to “get the f*** out of here” after the Vols’ win at the FedEx Forum in 2018.

    “I’ve said from the first day that I took this job, I think that the University of Tennessee has to have a presence in Nashville,” Barnes said following Tuesday’s win over USC Upstate. “I’ve also said that I think it’s important that we play in state teams. We still believe that. Going forward, certainly we’ll talk about it, as we do every year. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the expansion in terms of teams coming into this league quicker than we think. Looking forward, does that means we’re going to play more conference games? I don’t know. … There’s just so much that we don’t know right now. Like I said, we have to be in Nashville, that’s important. We’ve always said we think it’s important to play in state teams. Everything’s on the table.”

    Tennessee holds a 15-12 series lead over the Tigers, but the two schools have split the only two games in the series since the 2012-13 season. The winner of Saturday’s game will have bragging rights in the state of Tennessee for the foreseeable future.

    The Tigers have disappointed early in the 2021-22 season. Memphis was No. 12 in the preseason AP poll after bringing in top five recruits Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren. However, the Tigers struggled out the gate, starting 5-4 with losses to the four power conference opponents it played.

    “I think they’ve got young players, too,” Barnes said. “This time of year, teams struggle. There are a lot of teams that struggle this time of year. There’s a lot of basketball left. They’re a talented team. I think Penny Hardaway knows exactly how he wants to play with them. I haven’t watched a lot of Memphis. I haven’t watched a lot of Arizona and haven’t watched hardly any of Alabama. From there, I don’t know. I know those are our next three games. The fact is we will go about our preparation and what we do and I think our players are certainly aware that we’re going to have to get it to another level in all areas of what we’re doing and how challenging that’s going to be.”

    Still, Memphis is full of talent and that was clear on Tuesday when the Tigers knocked off No. 6 Alabama at the FedEx Forum.

    Of Memphis’ two star freshmen, Jalen Duren has lived up to expectations. The 6-foot-11, 250 pound freshman is a dominant force inside. Duren averages 10.8 points per game on 67% shooting while adding 7.6 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game.

    Duren presents a matchup Tennessee hasn’t faced yet this season. The Vols’ interior defense has been fantastic this season but the Pennsylvania native is a physical force that Tennessee hasn’t seen. It’s a big matchup for Tennessee freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield who has the physical tools to nearly match Duren.

    Five-star Emoni Bates — the nation’s No. 5 prospect — has struggled in the early going. Bates is also averaging 10.8 points per game but on an efficient 37% shooting from the field and 30% shooting from three-point range.

    The difference in the Alabama win and losses to Iowa State, Georgia and Ole Miss was the play of Memphis’ veterans. 

    Senior forward DeAndre Williams scored 20 points while juniors Landers Nolley II and Lester Quinones combined for 25 points.

    Tennessee’s ability to slow the game down and force Memphis’ turnovers are two factors to watch for Saturday.

    Alabama played right into the Tigers’ style playing an uptempo game, allowing Memphis to run in transition. Hardaway’s fourth Memphis team plays the 13th fastest pace in the country while Tennessee plays the 74th fastest pace.

    Turnovers have crippled Memphis’ offense — especially in the half court. The Tigers’ 24.76% turnover rate is an abysmal 353rd best in the country. Tennessee ranks eighth in the country in steals recorded per game while turning it over at a low clip.

    Tip-off between Tennessee and Memphis is set for noon ET at Bridgestone Arena. ESPN will broadcast the game.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.