USA TODAY Sports
A good basketball rivalry will come to a cowardly and selfish end Friday night in Knoxville, and there's no one to blame but Memphis.
I know there are some that don't like it when we call the University of Memphis "Tiger High"; I've received more negative emails about that in the past than anything or anyone else I've ever written about except, fittingly, John Calipari. So don't worry, we'll be killing two birds with laser precision on this one.
I know "Tiger High" helps advance a negative stereotype about academics in West Tennessee. I know there are good people who are trying to change that for the better who just happen to be Memphis Basketball fans on the side. And I know that Memphis beat us twice last year and right now our football program has bragging rights over no one.
But it's never been more appropriate than at what certainly appears to be the end of this rivalry, because Josh Pastner and the Memphis program are, like children, taking their ball and going home.
It's been stirring for almost a decade and it's come up in each of our eight meetings during that time, but Friday night in Knoxville is the final game in the Tennessee-Memphis basketball contract, and Memphis refuses to renew it. It started with Calipari, who fancies himself as the guy who will play anyone:
Whatever our schedule is, we play. Everybody knows … my history. We’ll play any team, any place, any time. Play on I-95. Shut it down. We’ll play on the Bluegrass Parkway. Shut it down. That’s the schedule.
That quote came last January; it sounds good, but it's a lie. Calipari did everything he could to get the Tennessee series moved to a neutral site in Nashville during his time on Beale Street, if not cancel the series completely. When the Vols threatened to cancel the football series, Memphis agreed to keep playing in basketball. But Calipari - whose Kentucky team no longer plays Indiana - laid the groundwork for Josh Pastner to stand on.
Here's the current coach in a story from Brendan Quinn in The Knoxville News-Sentinel today:
"We will not play Tennessee anymore as long as I'm the head coach and I'm doing my scheduling," Memphis coach Josh Pastner told the News Sentinel on Monday.
Calipari's reasons were about recruiting, and Pastner's are as well. But what's changed since Calipari was originally making that argument back in the BuzzBall days is that Tennessee hasn't just become a strong college basketball program, it has been step for step with Memphis since Bruce Pearl arrived in 2005...and sometimes a step ahead.
Tennessee has made the NCAA Tournament six of the past seven years, the same as Memphis before the 2008 run was vacated by the NCAA, which means both programs also have the same number of Sweet 16 appearances during that span. In our eight head-to-head meetings since the series was renewed, the count stands dead even at 4-4, which still leaves the overall count at 14-10 Tennessee. And when you consider Memphis has had six different NCAA Tournament appearances vacated, the Vols have more tournament appearances overall.
The argument that Memphis had nothing to gain from playing Tennessee was true in 2003. It's a lie in 2013.
Sure, there's more high school talent in West Tennessee than the Knoxville area. But what's also true is Tennessee has pulled back-to-back five stars from the Memphis area in Jarnell Stokes and Robert Hubbs. And the more Memphis fails to reproduce Calipari's success under Pastner - two tournament appearances and no Sweet 16s in three seasons - the more the temperature rises on Pastner's seat. In fact, the one area Memphis clearly has an advantage on the Vols is in NBA talent, meaning the Vols have played Memphis to a draw during this current run with, in theory, an inferior product. This Friday will be no exception; Memphis is again the more talented team. But that gap has been closing for awhile now, and Cuonzo Martin has successfully pulled from among West Tennessee's best twice now.
But aside from the recruiting situation, Memphis is a Conference USA program supposedly en route to a broken Big East. When the move was originally announced, you knew Pastner would use it as ammo to duck the Vols, because Memphis would no longer need the strength of schedule bump from playing a strong SEC program every year. But now that the Catholic schools have bailed and Louisville is headed for the ACC, the Big East is down to UConn, the Tigers' old Conference USA friends from Cincinnati, and a huge mess after that.
Pastner's claims in the KNS story that Memphis wants to play Louisville are real, I'm sure. Louisville is clearly a superior program to both of us, and they have history with the Tigers from old C-USA days as well. But the argument to stop playing Tennessee took shape long before Memphis secured U of L for a home-and-home rivalry. And it's been true for quite some time now that the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry is mutually beneficial, if not more so to a team with a Conference USA strength of schedule.
But all of that appears to be over now, because Pastner and Memphis will take their ball and go home. Cuonzo Martin and Tennessee will be just fine without it, but the real loser here is college basketball fans in the state of Tennessee. There have always been a group of West Tennesseans who cheered for the Vols in football and Memphis in basketball, and that to me has always been blasphemy. But it made for a great rivalry which was then taken to new heights by Pearl and Calipari. Now Memphis will try to shut the door on the Vols in West Tennessee and will march into an unknown future with its conference affiliation. The Vols will continue to schedule aggressively without the Tigers on the docket, and should continue to be a much stronger basketball program than when these conversations first began.
Call it whatever you want - pride, arrogance, selfishness, cowardice, all of the above - but Memphis is walking away from a good thing. And I for one hope we make sure the door hits them on the way out.