Tennessee and Memphis are set to resume their three-game series in basketball on December 14 in Knoxville, and it’s a matchup for which basketball fans across the state are excited.
Both Memphis and Tennessee are currently ranked in the top 20 and the matchup quickly sold out Thompson-Boling Arena.
The Tennessee-Memphis matchup found its way into the news this week as Knoxville radio host Jimmy Hyams reported Tennessee wouldn’t be renewing its series against Memphis after the last scheduled game in December of 2020.
Vols coach Rick Barnes said earlier today he doesn't think UT-Memphis series will be renewed after the 3-game set is completed next year in Nashville Dec. 18 or 20. Memphis hosted last year, UT will host Dec. 14 this year. Memphis coach Penny Hardaway blasted Barnes last year.— Jimmy Hyams (@JimmyHyams) November 18, 2019
The series resumed last season after a five year stretch where the two teams didn’t meet, and the rivalry sparked quickly.
No. 6 Tennessee led from wire-to-wire and coasted past the Tigers, winning in Memphis 102-92.
However, the play on the court wasn’t the main story from the FedEx Forum. A skirmish between Jordan Bone and Alex Lomax led to benches clearing and both players receiving a technical.
That situation was amplified postgame when first year Memphis coach Penny Hardaway called out Jordan Bone by name for starting the situation and then claimed the Tennessee bench came over to them “with their fists balled, talking trash to our guys.”
The tape wasn’t kind to Penny Hardaway. No Tennessee players were trying to fight. Both teams were jawing back and forth. It was a classic skirmish that happens in rivalry games.
The following week Jordan Bone made a comment about Memphis players flopping and Barnes joked with the Vol Network’s Bob Kesling about “balling his fist” at the Memphis radio announcers.
Hardaway responded harshly and, in his following press conference, Hardaway called Barnes “low class,” ending it by saying "Rick Barnes ... Get the f*** out of here."
Hardaway was completely in the wrong by how he handled things postgame. Hardaway looked more like the AAU coach he was four years earlier than one set to lead a proud Memphis basketball program.
But the incident sparked the rivalry again. Trash talk on social media bubbled with Tennessee fans boasting the win while Memphis fans waited 364 days for the rematch that would include a revamped roster after Hardaway signed a top-ranked signing class.
The incident reminded us of perhaps the rivalry’s most competitive run, where John Calipari had Memphis as a top program and Bruce Pearl brought the Tennessee basketball program to heights it hadn’t previously reached.
A run where the two coaches publicly didn’t like each other and both teams regularly were in the nation’s top 25, culminating in 2008 when the two teams met as No. 1 and No. 2 in the nation.
I understand why Tennessee and Barnes wouldn’t want to schedule Memphis. The series was scheduled while Tubby Smith, a friend of Barnes, was coach at Memphis.
Smith had just two short years before Hardaway, the Tigers’ prodigal son, pulled a coup d’état and became the new head coach.
Memphis needs this game more than Tennessee right now. The Tigers play in the American Athletic Conference and don’t play a particularly difficult non-conference slate while Tennessee has scheduled premier non-conference opponents every season that Barnes has been head coach, while also playing in a much improved SEC.
It’s a testament to what Barnes has done in Knoxville that this game is now a bigger necessity for Memphis than Tennessee, but it’s weak for Barnes and Tennessee to cancel the Memphis series.
While Tennessee can schedule a great non-conference schedule without Memphis, the matchup gives fans a game to get excited for in December, in a sport whose regular season has less importance than any other.
Tennessee and Memphis are the two premier programs in the state of Tennessee and the two should be playing every season.
Barnes has proven that he’s built a stable, winning program in Knoxville and if Hardaway can turn success on the recruiting trail to success on the court the Tigers could likely have their best run since Calipari bolted for Kentucky following the 2008 season.
Yes, things got personal and out of hand after last season’s game, and yes, the blame for that falls on Hardaway, but that isn’t a legitimate reason to stop playing a rivalry game.
If anything, last season’s incident is just further proof that these two rivals should be playing every year. Two coaches and teams that dislike each other as much as the two fanbases, that’s what makes a rivalry great.
Tennessee is doing a disservice to both fanbases by not renewing its current contract with Memphis.
It was weak when Josh Pastner and Memphis did it in 2012, and it’ll be weak if Barnes and Tennessee do it now.