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Tennessee vs Memphis Preview

Somebody's walking away with a huge dose of momentum heading into conference play.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

In the final hours before tonight's showdown with the end of this rivalry on the horizon, something's up. Despite the cries of a coach who certainly sounded sure of himself this week and what's really been an eight year attempt by John Calipari and Josh Pastner to change it, the continuation of the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry came back on the table Thursday night. According to that story by Brendan Quinn at KNS and reports from Rob Fischer of Sports 56 in Memphis, both athletic directors are in talks to continue both the football and basketball series. While this certainly leaves Coach Pastner with several feet in his mouth, it's great news for fans of both programs.

But by now the additional animosity of potentially saying goodbye to this rivalry has bled through; Thompson-Boling Arena should be rocking and Tennessee should be ready to go. Neither team is ranked, but this game carries that big game feel Vol fans have grown accustomed to in the last eight years. Time to go to work.

Memphis is 9-3; they lost to VCU (78-65) and Minnesota (84-75) in the Bahamas before salvaging their trip with a win over Northern Iowa. In their most recent appearance in the national spotlight, Memphis gave away a 16 point lead over then-#6 Louisville; the Cardinals scored 59 points in the second half of an 87-78 win at the FedEx Forum. For what it's worth, Ken Pomeroy loves all three teams Memphis has lost to (#3 Louisville, #10 VCU, #12 Minnesota). But this is also the first true road game of the season for Memphis.

These guys are tested but don't have a real quality win yet, nothing as good as what Tennessee has over Wichita State. Josh Pastner is 0-11 against ranked teams now in his fourth season at Memphis, and as he's never taken Memphis to the Sweet 16, there are plenty of questions brewing about his ability to win a big game.

This isn't the Tennessee team Memphis saw in Maui or off Beale Street last season either. The Vols found their best basketball in the immediate aftermath of the 69-51 Memphis win one year ago today, and the buy-in to Cuonzo Martin's defensive style plus the addition of Jarnell Stokes make this a very different Tennessee team than what Pastner has seen before.

It's a similar Memphis lineup from last time with Joe Jackson at point guard and Adonis Thomas on the wing, but forward Tarik Black is banged up and doubtful for tonight's game. That should give Tennessee an additional advantage inside in a series the Vols typically dominate on the glass. 6'3" junior guard Geron Johnson is a new face to the mix averaging 10.6 points per game; Jackson still leads the way at 13.2 per.

Part of what makes this particular version of the rivalry so good is Memphis is really the anti-us. Here are a few of the Tiger offensive stat rankings:

  • Points Per Game: 74.0 (65th nationally)
  • Field Goal Percentage: 47.2% (33rd)
  • Effective FG Percentage: 51.5% (79th)
...and here's what we do:
  • Points Allowed Per Game: 56.4 (16th)
  • Opponent FG Percentage: 38.4% (40th)
  • Effective FG Percentage Allowed: 41.8% (15th)
In addition, the Vols are currently fifth best in the nation defending the three ball, giving up just 25% from the arc. However, Memphis gets 59.7% of its points from two point shots, the 37th highest percentage in the nation, so that may not help us much tonight.

As has been the case all year, a huge key for Tennessee is the free throw line. The Vols have a Free Throw Rate of 46.6%, 9th best in the country, and Tennessee gets 25.2% of its points from the stripe, 10th best in the land. The Vols currently average 23.5 free throw attempts per game. However, Memphis will still bang inside as well, especially on the other end: the Tigers get their own rebound 37.9% of the time, something that hurt Tennessee early in the Xavier game.

Who dictates pace of play is going to be huge here. Memphis wants to push and wants to make you do the same; the Tigers average an incredible 9.9 steals per game, 13th best in the land. As you can see, both of these teams have a clear identity and are very, very good at the handful of things that make up that identity. Tennessee needs to impose its will defensively, but it also must do a better job taking care of the basketball on the other end, something else that really hurt us against Xavier. It could be as simple as Memphis wins a high scoring game, Tennessee wins a low scoring game.

Keep an eye on minutes for Tennessee's starters; Trae Golden, Jarnell Stokes, and Skylar McBee were pulled for much of the second half against Xavier, and Cuonzo's bench really got it done. It'll be especially interesting to see how often he goes back to Brandon Lopez, and what else Derek Reese can do in his second game as a Vol. It's a huge advantage for Tennessee not only to have an unknown variable in Reese, but if he can knock down that corner three again, it will stretch the defense and make it harder to double down on Stokes.

And this is a big game for Jarnell, let there be no doubt. First time against the home team, struggled all year in big games without Maymon, got benched last time out. Even without Black in there if he can't go, Memphis should present a challenge to him. Can he rise to the moment?

The moment is big, no doubt, and we all want this one very badly. If the Vols lose, you're 8-4 heading into conference play with fewer opportunities for marquee wins against the SEC than you thought would be there; Tennessee wouldn't be on the outside of the tournament picture necessarily, but you'd need to avoid many slip ups in conference play, and with 18 games on the slate that's asking a lot.

But a win gets you to 9-3, keeps you on a roll, and gives you the momentum you need to walk into conference play (with a hot Ole Miss team up first) and believe you can win this thing. And I think Tennessee can.

As usual, if the Vols defend the way they defend under Cuonzo, we'll have a chance to win. But here's what else I know: in the 2012 calendar year, the only team to beat Cuonzo's Vols in Knoxville was eventual National Champion Kentucky by three points. Part of this team's DNA under Cuonzo has become finding any and every way to get it done at home. We don't lose in Knoxville. I expect our crowd to act accordingly.

Memphis is talented, no doubt. But in Knoxville, we're the better team. And whether this is the last night of this rivalry or just the next night, we need to make sure Memphis knows it's our night, and our state.

8:00 PM, ESPN2. Get your orange on.

Go Vols.