Future of Tennessee-Memphis series in doubt - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Future of Tennessee-Memphis series in doubt

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Steve Megargee
AP Sports Writer

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The winner of Friday's Memphis-Tennessee game at Thompson-Boling Arena could earn bragging rights for quite some time.

This series' contract expires at the end of the season, and Memphis coach Josh Pastner says he has no interest in continuing to face the Volunteers.

"If it's up to me, the only way we'll play them is if we're playing them in a tournament," Pastner said.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the end of the rivalry.

Memphis athletic department spokesman Bob Winn said Thursday afternoon that Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen indicated to him that he and Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart are "certainly in conversations right now about the future of the series, not only for basketball, but other sports as well."

Memphis' ambivalent attitude toward this series isn't new.

Former Memphis coach John Calipari said he didn't want to play a home-and-home series with Tennessee because the Volunteers recruit the area of Memphis more heavily than the Tigers recruit Knoxville, a smaller city without nearly as many Division I prospects.

Pastner didn't go into detail about his reasons for wanting to end the rivalry, though he did point out the uncertainty surrounding Memphis' schedule as it prepares to enter the Big East next season. Pastner emphasized that he had "the utmost respect" for Tennessee's program and Vols coach Cuonzo Martin.

"It's nothing against Tennessee or anything like that," Pastner said. "It's more what I feel what's best with our program as we move forward in our scheduling as we move to the Big East."

Martin said he would prefer to keep playing Memphis.

"Our schedule's set for next year, so we can't do it next year," Martin said. "Hopefully we can continue this thing in the future. It would be fun for everybody involved."

The Memphis-Tennessee series doesn't have as much history as many other in-state rivalries.

Memphis and Tennessee faced each other just once before 1988. They met at least once every season from 1988-2001, but the series didn't resume until the 2005-06 season. They've played each other every season since.

Pastner said Memphis fans consider Louisville — not Tennessee — the team's biggest rival. Memphis and Louisville are former Metro Conference and Conference USA rivals who have faced each other 87 times.

"The No. 1 team they want on the schedule is Louisville," Pastner said. "They want to play Louisville every single year."

Although Memphis (9-3) and Tennessee (8-3) have played each other just 24 times — Tennessee leads the series 14-10 — this has developed into one of the nation's more intense and competitive non-conference rivalries.

Friday will mark only the third time in the last 12 Tennessee-Memphis games that neither team was ranked. Since the series resumed in 2005-06, no team has beaten the other more than two straight times. Nine of the last 16 Memphis-Tennessee games have been decided by five points or less.

The two schools also engaged in a couple of tough recruiting battles for Memphis-area prospects recently.

Tennessee got a boost last year from the midseason arrival of Memphis native Jarnell Stokes, a 6-foot-8 forward who is averaging 11.4 points and a team-high 7.4 rebounds thus far in his sophomore season.

Memphis gained some revenge this fall by signing 6-8 forward Austin Nichols of Briarcrest Christian. Nichols, rated by Rivals.com as the No. 20 prospect in the 2013 class, considered Tennessee before choosing Memphis.

"I think (the series) should continue," Stokes said. "Guys like me grew up watching the Memphis-Tennessee series. I'd be devastated if they chose to cancel it."

The most memorable moment in this series occurred Feb. 23, 2008. That's when No. 2 Tennessee won 66-62 at Memphis to hand the top-ranked Tigers their first loss of the season. The victory allowed Tennessee to move atop The Associated Press poll for the first time in school history.

Stokes attended that game with divided loyalties. He also was at the FedEx Forum last year under much tougher circumstances.

Although he wasn't yet eligible to play for Tennessee when the Vols played at Memphis last season, Stokes was in the stands directly behind the Tennessee bench. Stokes said he heard Memphis fans heckling him and derisively comparing his selection of Tennessee over his hometown school to LeBron James' decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"That was a reality check that it's all business," Stokes said. "I guess once you leave, you're not welcome any more at home."

Memphis breezed to a 69-51 victory over Tennessee that night and also edged the Vols 99-97 in double overtime in last season's Maui Invitational. Tennessee wants to avenge those two losses, and both teams also would like to continue their recent surges as they prepare to start league play next week. Tennessee has won four straight games, while Memphis has won seven of its last eight.

The possibility these teams won't meet again anytime in the near future only adds to the stakes.

"If this is the last time, you want to go out saying that you won the very last time that you played," Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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