No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Rival schools from the same state.
A pair of fiery coaches who aren’t exactly crazy about each other.
And, oh yeah, there’s the pursuit of perfection.
No wonder the matchup between top-ranked Memphis (that’s the perfect one) and second-ranked Tennessee is being hyped like a championship fight.
“Everybody else is talking about it,” Tigers guard Antonio Anderson said. “You go to the stores, gas stations, wherever you’re at, everybody’s talking about it. It’s a big game. We know that and they know that.”
Tickets on the Internet were going for as much as $5,000. NFL star Peyton Manning, a Tennessee alum, pulled enough strings to land a seat at FedEx Forum.
Even Elvis got in on the act. Graceland was illuminated in Memphis blue on the eve of the big game, an event dubbed “Operation: Blue Suede Shoe.”
“It’ll be crazy,” Memphis coach John Calipari said. “If you can sell your tickets and pay for your child’s tuition for a year, just make sure the person is in blue. That’s all I’m saying. I’m all for it. I’m not going to be disappointed and 30 years from now, you can lie and say, ‘I was there.’ Who’s going to know?”
The Tigers (26-0) are trying to become the first Division I men’s basketball team to make it through a season without a loss since Indiana in 1976. This will likely be their toughest test until the NCAA tournament.
They close out the regular season against Tulsa, Southern Miss, SMU and UAB, then it’s on to the Conference USA tournament, hosted by Memphis in the same building where the Tigers have a 47-game winning streak, the nation’s longest at home.
The team from across the state would like nothing better than to at least snuff out any hope of a perfect season.
“It does feel kind of good, honestly,” Tennessee’s Jordan Howell said. “Not many people think we’re going to go in there and win, but we do. We think we’ll go in there playing together and be able to beat them. But they’re the No. 1 team in the country, and rightfully so. They’re undefeated.”
Then again, as the Patriots discovered in the Super Bowl, perfection is elusive. Eighteen straight wins didn’t mean a thing when New England lost to the New York Giants in a huge upset.
Maybe Manning’s school can do to the Tigers what little brother Eli’s team did to the Patriots.
When it comes to hoops, no men’s team has come close to perfection since UNLV in 1991. The Runnin’ Rebels reached the national semifinals with nary a blemish on their record—in fact, they had won 45 in a row over two seasons— only to get taken down by underdog Duke.
Which still leaves the ’76 Hoosiers, who went 32-0 with a team coached by Bobby Knight and led by Scott May, Kent Benson and Quinn Buckner, as the last of the unbeatens.
It’s still a bit early for Memphis to be pondering a perfect season. At the moment, the Tigers are more concerned with sending a message to their cynics, those who say that lofty record is more the result of playing in a second-line conference than possibly being a team for the ages.
“I want to have fun coaching this game. I want my team to have fun,” Calipari said. “It’s not March. This is not do or die. This is about what are we right now.”
Calipari and his flamboyant Tennessee counterpart, Bruce Pearl, have sniped at each other in the past, and there’s no telling if their cool relationship will boil over in what is sure to be a highly charged game.
“There’s just some natural strain there,” Pearl said. “I think he does a tremendous job and I’ve got great respect for what he does, and I think that he recognizes that this program has made some strides as well.”’
Calipari tried to downplay the coaching matchup.
“Let’s hope we just play the ball game,” he said. “This thing is big enough that I don’t have to use him and he doesn’t need to use me to inspire a team.”
Tennessee (24-2) is chasing its own bit of history, looking to nail down its first Southeastern Conference title in 41 years. Though this game won’t have any impact on the SEC standings, it could leave the Vols all banged up heading into important league games against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Florida.
Pearl is trying to take a different tact: If his team can get through the next couple of weeks with four straight wins, they’ll know they can handle whatever is thrown at them in the NCAAs.
“What four games are going to be tougher to get to the Final Four than those four games?” he asked. “That’s how I’m approaching it with the guys, so I do think it comes at a good time. We’re going to see where we’re at, and then we’ve got a few weeks to fix it.”
The stakes are much higher than last year, when an unranked Tennessee team led by as many as 21 points on the way to a 76-58 rout of then-No. 16 Memphis. With any state rivalry, it’s always good to be the team on top.
“My teammates, I know they remember,” Tigers guard Willie Kemp said. “We lost by, what was it: 20, 25 points? They gave us our worst loss that we’ve had in a couple of years.”
Both teams are deep and love to run.
“They’re very similar—very up and down,” said Chris Lofton, Tennessee’s star guard. “They want to get in the fast break and play up-tempo basketball. Both teams are best when they’re playing up and down.”
Just one more thing to get excited about.
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tenn., and Beth Rucker in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.