The recent decision by the University of Memphis to join the far-flung Big East has already produced numerous ripple effects, including one that Tennessee basketball fans aren’t going to like.
The Tennessee-Memphis series, competitive the last several years, will almost certainly end after the Tigers play in Knoxville next season. Outgoing Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, long a proponent of the series, had been trying to extend it, but he’s going to leave the decision about whether to renew to his successor, who will almost certainly take coach Josh Pastner’s opinion under advisement.
And Pastner has never liked playing Tennessee, as he recently told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. The move to the Big East is probably going to be the necessary catalyst for ending the series.
"The Tennessee series needs to be cut after next year," Pastner said. "Whether we're going into the Big East, Conference USA, any other league, we don't need to play that series.
“No disrespect to (Tennessee coach) Cuonzo Martin, because I think he's a heck of a person and he's done a great job. This is just strictly about I believe what (former Memphis) coach (John) Calipari felt about it. There's no need to play it, and I've not wavered on that stance since day one.
"So next year is the last year of the contract. I expect and hope that we are done with them in terms of playing them in the non-conference, obviously unless the Big East-SEC Challenge forces you to do that. That'd be out of our control."
Pastner, like Calipari before him, believes playing the Vols gives them a recruiting assist in talent-rich Memphis.
That’s an interesting theory, especially considering that since Pastner replaced Calipari three seasons ago, he’s gotten just about every Memphis player he’s wanted, with the recent exception of Jarnell Stokes. And though Martin and his staff are working Memphis hard and will no doubt sign some players from the city, Stokes’ decision is not going to open a passageway from Memphis to Knoxville.
Remember, before Stokes, the last Memphis player to sign with the Vols was Dane Bradshaw — in 2002.
There are numerous reasons Tennessee hasn’t built a pipeline to Memphis. One is distance. Another is the fact Ole Miss under Andy Kennedy, and now Arkansas, under Mike Anderson, are always going to be players for Memphis talent. And when Duke (Elliot Williams) or North Carolina (Leslie McDonald) decide they want a player from Memphis, chances are good they’ll be able to take him.
I can’t see why, if Tennessee plays a game in Memphis every other season, high school players from that city would suddenly want to sign with the Vols. It’s not as if they don’t already know there’s a university in Knoxville.
Word gets around. Big Orange Country casts a pretty big shadow. But that hasn’t seemed to stop local players from signing with the Tigers: the current roster lists Drew Barham (Christian Brothers), Tarik Black (Ridgeway), Chris Crawford (Sheffield), Trey Draper (Mitchell), Ferrakohn Hall (White Station), Joe Jackson (White Station), Preston Laird (Germantown) and Adonis Thomas (Melrose).
Not all of those are scholarship players, but most were heavily recruited by Tennessee and other power conference schools. Still, they decided to stay home and play.
That’s not hard to understand. Memphis fans love their Tigers. The FedEx Forum is a palace of an arena that is packed for Memphis home games. The Tigers may play in a so-called mid-major league, for now, but Memphis has never been considered a mid-major. It’s a perennial top 25 program.
Why wouldn’t Memphis want to test itself annually against Tennessee? Good basketball has often been the result. Remember 2008, when No. 1 Memphis and No. 2 Tennessee played in a game that was ESPN’s most viewed ever (3.6 million households, 5.3 million viewers)? That game had a Final Four atmosphere that spilled out into the streets of Memphis.
Does anyone want to suggest the Memphis-Tennessee series doesn’t make for compelling viewing?
I get that Memphis’ schedule will be upgraded slightly by moving to the Big East. Or will it? Syracuse and Pittsburgh are bolting for the ACC. West Virginia has left for the Big 12 and the rumor is that Louisville and Cincinnati might not be far behind.
And it’s not as if Tennessee doesn’t face a tough conference schedule, or that the Vols don’t also play other rugged non-conference games every year, including Pitt and Connecticut this season.
Here's a final point for the new Memphis athletic director to ponder before calling a halt to a series that is good for college basketball and the fans of both teams: If Martin wants to play in Memphis, he'll do it anyway, with or without the Tigers. He's already said he wouldn't mind playing a team like Arkansas or Missouri in the FedEx Forum every year.
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