The single most memorable Tiger basketball game at FedExForum since the building opened (in 2004) is the Tennessee game played on February 23, 2008. That Saturday night, downtown Memphis was the center of the college basketball universe as top-ranked and undefeated Memphis — led by freshman sensation Derrick Rose — faced the second-ranked Vols, a program surging at the time under third-year coach Bruce Pearl. Alas, the visitors snuck away with a win (66-62), though the outcome wasn't decided until the final minute. The four-year-old Forum almost blew its lid.
Penny Hardaway's Tigers will host the Vols this Saturday, the first time in almost six years the cross-state sometimes-rivals have played. It will be the first time in almost seven years that the Big Orange — basketball chapter — has taken the floor in Memphis, and only the third time since that one-two tussle of 2008. Ranked third in the country and slayers last weekend of top-ranked Gonzaga, the Vols make the 2018-19 Tiger season stronger merely by being on the schedule. Should the Tigers pull off an upset Saturday, the game could be a definitive snapshot from Hardaway's rookie season as coach.
The Bartow Bash
So why aren't the Vols on the Tigers' schedule every
year? And what about UAB? (Memphis beat the Blazers last Saturday at FedExForum.) The UAB program is a Memphis cousin, having been founded by the great Gene Bartow, the coach who led the Tigers to the brink of a national championship in 1973. As fellow members, first, of the Great Midwest Conference (Hardaway remembers those days well) and later Conference USA, Memphis and UAB played each other every season from 1990-91 through 2012-13, usually twice and, now and then, three times (when they met in a league tourney). This wasn't 1980s Memphis State-Louisville, but it was a familiar foe, a regional rival, and it felt good to beat the Blazers, painful to lose to them.
Memphis has 13 nonconference games on its schedule this season. Three are determined somewhat by the luck (up or down) of a holiday tournament. This means Hardaway and Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen have 10 chances to make the kind of mark that 1) helps the Tiger program grow and 2) sells the Tiger program to the regional — better yet, national — market Memphis craves. Kentucky has been tossed around in casual conversation as a future Tiger opponent, and let's hope that happens while John Calipari is still wearing Lexington blue. But gazing further ahead, Memphis needs to secure annual meetings that feed both the program and its fan base.
The Tigers should play Tennessee every year, just as Kentucky faces Louisville. I've yet to hear a counterpoint to this argument that holds water. Former Memphis coach Josh Pastner was said to fear losing recruits to Knoxville if the Tigers played the Vols. If Memphis becomes second-fiddle to the University of Tennessee in basketball
, far more has been lost than a five-star forward.
In addition to Tennessee, Memphis should schedule two of the following three programs annually: UAB, Arkansas, and Ole Miss. The Bluff City centers a tri-state region and should build on its scattered history with the Razorbacks and Rebels. And UAB belongs in the mix for the Bartow connection alone. It's a legacy worth keeping and cultivating. Call this annual meeting the "Bartow Bash" and two programs would be better for it.
Hardaway acknowledges the importance of familiar foes in college basketball. "It's great for the city of Memphis," he said after the UAB win. "To have UAB, Tennessee, and we can probably try to get Louisville back. We're gonna have Ole Miss next year. It's a beautiful thing. It gives siblings, family members, and friends bragging rights for the year. I'm really going to enjoy those games."
You know that contempt bred by familiarity? It happens to also be an adrenaline booster, fuel for a Memphis program on the rise, but still climbing.