KNOXVILLE — Memphis coach Josh Pastner had to have expected the question, and in fact in came early in his post-game press conference on Friday night, just minutes after his Tigers put the finishing touches on their third straight win over Tennessee.
Why would he want to end a series that his team, for the last two years at least, has dominated?
Ever the diplomat, Pastner quickly launched into praise mode.
“Let me first say this,” Pastner said. “(Tennessee coach) Cuonzo Martin is a really good guy and a very good coach and they have a really good basketball team. And secondly, I don’t get into records, I don’t get into that. I want to win every game we play.”
Then the answer the gathered media was waiting for:
“I’m going to let Mr. (Memphis athletic director Tom) Bowen handle all that,” Pastner said.
That’s probably good advice, given what had transpired earlier in the week. Pastner told several media outlets, including Nooga.com, that he had no intentions of playing Tennessee ever again. His reasoning: That Louisville, not the Vols, was the non-conference team Memphis fans wanted to see their team play.
Pastner went on to say he had the complete backing of his athletic director in pulling out of a series that has been played on a home-and-home basis since 2005 and has become hotly contested and a staple on ESPN.
Not so fast.
After the media quoted Pastner and Memphis and Tennessee fans began voicing their displeasure, Bowen told Pastner that the series would probably continue after all.
“The Tennessee game is important,” Bowen told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal.
Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart echoed those sentiments and told the Knoxville News-Sentinel that he and Bowen were into serious negotiations about renewing the series. Friday’s game was the last in the contract between the two schools.
Little wonder that, asked about playing Tennessee in a roomful of TV cameras and tape recorders, Pastner referred to his boss.
As it turns out, Pastner couldn’t have been more wrong about playing Tennessee. Everybody wants this series to continue, even his own players.
“It’s a great series,” said Adonis Thomas, “a great state rivalry. The atmosphere is always exciting. It’s always competitive. But it’s going to be up to both head coaches.”
Thomas was dead on up until that last comment. Just ask Pastner about that.
Point guard Joe Jackson, who like Thomas was heavily recruited by Tennessee, had much the same thing to say about playing the Vols.
“The game is gonna get you fired up if you have any type of emotional energy,” Jackson said. “The crowd. You’ve got to thrive on these types of games. It’s a good game to play in, but it can be a difficult one if you don’t prepare yourself.”
Jackson, who’s a junior, still has another year to play the Vols. Would he want to?
“Of course. Tennessee and Memphis. Memphis and Tennessee. You’ve gotta keep playing these games. For the fans. It’s a good game for TV. It’s a moneymaker. A lot goes into these games. As a player it’s a very exciting game to play in.”
As it turns out, Bowen had reasons both emotional and practical to keep this series alive. It would have been nice if he had let Pastner know.
No doubt Bowen caught hell from fans, and then there’s also the little matter of Memphis’ uncertain future. The program jumped to the Big East when the league still was a semblance of its old self. But when the seven Catholic schools, notably Georgetown and Marquette, announced they were leaving the league, it put the Big East’s future in jeopardy. Things got worse when Boise State left the Big East before it ever competed in a game. San Diego State is supposed to do the same thing.
Memphis has home-and-home series scheduled with both programs, but it's now certain to opt out of those deals.
Boise State and San Diego State instead of the Vols? Of course that was preposterous.
For now, at least, it seems like order has been restored, cooler heads have prevailed and common sense has won the day.
But Memphis might need to do something about that communication gap between its administration and its head basketball coach.
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