Gone is the hoopla surrounding the Memphis and Tennessee game last year when they met as the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.
However, the rivalry is just as intense and this year’s game should be just as exciting.
“Those are games you look for when you’re a little kid and watching college basketball. You get interesting rivals … you’ve got to love it,” said senior guard Antonio Anderson.
After meeting in February 2008 as the top teams in the nation, a lot has changed for the Tigers and the Volunteers.
Together they have lost a full slate of starters, and after starting this season with high expectations, Tennessee has fallen from the ranking and Memphis just returned this week at No. 22.
The teams have met each of the three previous seasons Bruce Pearl has been coach at Tennessee. The Vols have won the last two - including their 66-62 last season to earn their first ever No. 1 ranking - and seven of the last nine.
Add to that the bragging rights within the state of Tennessee and the fact that Pearl and Memphis coach John Calipari often go head-to-head in recruiting, and there’s still plenty of fire in this rivalry.
“I think they’re going to come up here very, very excited, but we’re excited to play them as well,” Pearl said.
Tennessee (12-5) lost starting guards Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith to graduation and dismissed starting guard Ramar Smith and reserve forward Duke Crews, who together accounted for 52 percent of the Vols’ scoring last season.
Memphis (15-3) lost three starters in guard Chris Douglas-Roberts, guard Derrick Rose and center Joey Dorsey to the NBA. The trio was responsible for 50 percent of the Tigers’ scoring and 45 percent of their rebounding last season.
Both teams have had their share of growing pains this season, and Calipari hopes Saturday night’s game will provide a measuring stick for how far his young team has come since early losses to Xavier, Georgetown and Syracuse.
“We have to really evaluate where we are on the national stage,” he said. “You can only do that against really, really talented teams, and that’s what Tennessee is.”
Last year’s meeting was front and center on the national stage with all the expected pomp and circumstance, celebrity sightings and media hype.
Tennessee’s time atop The Associated Press poll was short-lived after their win. The Vols lost its next contest at Vanderbilt and prematurely stumbled in both the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments.
It was the only game Memphis would lose before playing for the national title and falling to Kansas.
When they meet this time, both teams will have a different look. The Tigers haven’t fully replaced their scoring capacity from last year while the Vols have struggled to find their defensive identity.
And while playing one another won’t get either team any help in their respective conferences, Pearl still finds it important to play such big non-conference matchups.
“I just think you try to be consistently competitive. When you’re in a situation where you’re competing for your conference championship most years, you get out there and schedule against national teams,” Pearl said.
“Just like being competitive in the (Southeastern Conference) is important, being competitive against Memphis is important.”
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