Fans of the annual Tennessee-Memphis basketball game had better get their fill at the Vols’ Thompson-Boling Arena on Friday night. As long as Josh Pastner is the Tigers’ coach, the series is history, and the only way the two teams will meet again is in postseason play.
This might be a good case study to see if someone on the NCAA tournament selection committee really does have a sense of humor.
Until the NCAAs, or the NIT, Friday night’s game is going to be it for the Tigers and Vols. It’s a shame, but Memphis coach Josh Pastner has what he considers to be sound logic for cutting off a series that in recent years has produced some memorable games, including 2008, when Memphis was ranked No. 1 and the Vols No. 2.
“The series is over,” Pastner said.
Asked why, Pastner had a ready answer.
“It used to be about recruiting, but it’s not even about that anymore,” he said. “The one (non-conference) game our fans want to see every year is Louisville. No other game. Coach (Rick) Pitino and I have already agreed. Next year, we’ll have to play each other when we’re both in the Big East. But after Louisville goes to the ACC, we’ll still continue the series.”
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin seems to have already moved past the demise of the series.
"If they aren't going to do it then we have to move forward and schedule games we need to schedule," Martin said. " You've heard Josh say why he doesn't want to play and that's fine, I can respect that. For us, we'd like to continue, but if not, we have to move forward."
Friday night’s game has plenty of storylines besides the obvious one. Both teams have three losses, none of them in what the selection committee would place in the “bad” category. Both are in need of a solid non-conference win before entering into conference play.
And then there’s the Jarnell Stokes factor. The Vols’ sophomore, still a few days away from his 19th birthday, has yet to play against his hometown university. Could this be the incentive he needs to break out of the rut he’s been in versus the better teams on Tennessee’s schedule?
Against Xavier, Wichita State, Virginia, Georgetown and Oklahoma State, Stokes has been limited to an average of 5.6 points and 6.4 rebounds. Against every other team on the Vols’ schedule, those averages jump to 16.5 and 8.2.
Could playing a team full of fellow former Memphis prep stars light Stokes’ fire? Could jousting with freshman Shaq Goodwin, Stokes’ teammate on the U.S. U18 team that won the gold medal in the FIBA Americas tournament last summer, do the trick?
Like Martin, Pastner has done some tinkering with his lineup. “Not to bench anyone,” Pastner said. “Just to get people going with a little less pressure (than they would have in the starting lineup).”
One of those is junior guard Chris Crawford, whose jump shot has gone AWOL. His place in the lineup has been taken by junior college transfer Geron Johnson. In another recent move, point guard Joe Jackson has been shifted to the two spot. Jackson stills runs the point occasionally, but since the switch eight games ago, Jackson is averaging around 14.5 points and 56 percent shooting.
Just like the Vols (8-3), Memphis (9-3) had some weaknesses exposed in a November tournament. In the Tigers’ case, it was the Battle 4 Atlantis, where they lost to VCU and Minnesota.
“Would I have liked to win those games in the Bahamas?” Pastner said. “Of course. But VCU is good enough to go to the Final Four. Way underrated. And Minnesota is ranked in the top 10.
“In a way, though, we’re a different team because of those losses. We found out a lot about our team.”
One thing the Tigers haven’t found out yet is how good a road team they’re going to be. They have yet to play a true road game.
Tennessee has gotten into a little groove at home. Coming off losses at Georgetown and Virginia a month ago, they returned to Knoxville for a six game home stand. The Vols have won the first four of those games. Though they’re still searching for answers to some prolonged scoring droughts, they have derived energy from their fans and played their best basketball of the season.
The Memphis series always brings out the best in the Vols, too. Given that this is the last time the teams will meet in the regular season, for at least as long as Pastner is on the job at Memphis, Tennessee might find even more motivation.