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Rick Barnes talks Memphis

NCAA Basketball: Memphis at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

After taking a year off, one of Tennessee’s biggest rivalry matchups is back on. Tennessee will meet Memphis in Nashville tomorrow, set to break a tie between Penny Hardaway and Rick Barnes. The Vols won the matchup in Memphis, the Tigers won in Knoxville, and now the two sides will meet in the mid-state.

As you surely remember, there’s been plenty of bad blood between the two schools, sparking from that 2018 matchup that Tennessee won. Hardaway backed off of those comments a year later, and both coaches have moved on.

Now attention turns to Saturday, which is a massive game for Memphis. Hardaway’s Tigers were expected to contend for a national title this season after bringing in the nation’s top recruiting class, along with adding legendary coach Larry Brown to the staff. After starting 5-0, Memphis dropped four straight, including embarrassing losses to Georgia and Murray State.

“This time of year, teams struggling — there are a lot of teams that struggle this time of year,” Rick Barnes said of Memphis. “There is a lot of basketball left. They are a talented team. I think that Penny knows exactly how he wants to play with them.”

Memphis rebounded in a massive way this week, taking down No. 6 Alabama. Hardaway changed his lineup in that game, clearly leaning on his veteran players instead of those destined for the NBA Lottery. Senior DeAndre Williams scored 20 points, while Landers Nolley scored 13. Five-star, top overall recruit Emoni Bates played just 15 minutes in the game, which was a big change from the previous four games.

It was just one game, and the last four losses can’t be ignored, but that rotational change could be a potential turning point for Memphis. Clearly the team will need Bates in order to reach their full potential in a few months, but it’s been pretty obvious that he’s not ready just yet.

Now they meet Tennessee, looking for another big win to try and piece their season back together. It’s one they badly need, considering the light conference schedule they face in the AAC.

For Tennessee, it really marks the start of the true season. The Volunteers will face Memphis and Arizona over the next few days before starting SEC play against Alabama. The buy games are done, and it’s going to be a fight every night from here until March.

“I can’t imagine anyone playing — you think about our next three non-league games, it is Memphis, Arizona and Texas is what is left,” Barnes said. “All of them are extremely talented, well-coached teams. You throw in our league and it is here. We have to be ready. We have to be. This is a time of year where everything you have done up to this point is pretty much to get you ready for these type of games.”

Tennessee has a win over North Carolina and a road win against Colorado. They’ve dropped games against Villanova and Texas Tech. Though Memphis is 6-4, this would be a win that will likely look a lot better down the road a bit. The Tigers are big, ultra-talented and deep, the only question is, will Penny stick with what worked against Alabama?

“We will go about our preparation and what we do,” Barnes said. “I think our players are aware we are going to have to get it to another level in all areas of what we are doing and how challenging it is going to be.”

Tip-off is set for noon ET in Nashville. ESPN2 will have the coverage on Saturday. Tennessee is a 5.5 point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

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