Memphis coach John Calipari crafted his non-conference schedule to compensate for a weak Conference USA.
The fourth-ranked Tigers finally end their grueling slate Wednesday when they try to claim state bragging rights against Tennessee.
Memphis (15-2) has played eight 2005 NCAA tournament teams this season, with its two losses a 70-67 defeat Nov. 25 to No. 1 Duke in the championship game of the Preseason NIT and a 69-58 home loss Jan. 2 to then-No. 15 Texas. Along the way, the Tigers have recorded road wins at Alabama and Cincinnati as well as an 83-72 home win Jan. 2 over then-No. 8 Gonzaga.
Calipari’s team has won its first two Conference USA games, including a 73-53 rout Saturday of SMU. Rodney Carney scored 15 points for the Tigers, whom Calipari made sure were not looking ahead to Tennessee after starting the game with an 18-2 run.
“It’s very hard,” admitted Carney, who is averaging 17.9 points. “You see the score and you want to slack up. But you can’t because Cal is on the sideline getting after you. He wants the intensity up at all times. I can see why, but it’s pretty hard to stay focused.”
Carney, who has a team-high 51 3-pointers, needs six more to tie the school record of 242 established by Anthony Rice. Memphis is averaging 82.3 points, 10.0 steals and outrebounding opponents by nearly seven per game.
Shawne Williams (13.5 ppg) and Darius Washington (12.7 ppg) also average in double figures for the Tigers, who have six players averaging at least 7.2 points. Carney, Williams, Antonio Anderson and Andre Allen all have at least 22 steals.
This game is one of two for Tennessee (11-2) this week against Top 5 opponents. The Volunteers, who were ranked briefly earlier this season, host No. 2 Florida on Saturday. A sellout is expected at the 24,535-seat Thompson-Boling Arena.
First-year coach Bruce Pearl runs a similar up-tempo attack to Calipari, and Tennessee is averaging 83.8 points. The Vols, though, are trying to bounce back from Saturday’s 88-74 defeat at LSU. Chris Lofton, who averages 15.6 points, was held to two on 1-for-7 shooting, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range.
“Chris wasn’t hunting his shot,” Pearl said. “I thought several times when he was open he didn’t shoot it. He’s one of the best shooters in the country, but he didn’t have it tonight.”
The Volunteers are shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point range, and Lofton has made 46 of 101 (45.5 percent) from beyond the arc. C.J. Watson, who averages a team-high 16.8 points while shooting 52.1 percent from the field, has gone 22-for-49 (44.9 percent) from 3-point range.
This is the first game between the teams since the 2001-02 season, when Memphis edged Tennessee 71-69. The Volunteers, who lead the all-time series 10-6, had won the previous five games.