Saturday night at FedExForum, Memphis will host the closest thing to a Final Four the city has ever seen. The top two college basketball teams in the country will share a floor for 40 minutes, and with more than a state's bragging rights on the line. Memphis vs. Tennessee. The Game of the Year, and perhaps more.
In trying to name the greatest regular-season game in the history of Memphis Tiger basketball, we're almost forced to wear blinders. Why even look beyond the fabled series — sadly, now former series — between the U of M and the University of Louisville? Particularly during the 1980s — when Louisville won a pair of national titles, Memphis reached the '85 Final Four, and the teams traded Metro Conference championships like a flu bug — the Tigers vs. the Cardinals was among the preeminent rivalries in the history of college basketball. From the 1980-81 season through 1988-89, the teams played 18 times, each winning nine. Considering when it was played (the Tigers' regular-season finale) and the ranking of each squad (Tigers were 17th, Cardinals 3rd in the country), the March 6, 1983, game that Louisville won, 64-62 in overtime, might qualify as the "greatest ever."
But a new era is upon us. A necessary ingredient for a great rivalry is really sort of ugly: hatred. And the number of Memphis sports fans who hate the University of Tennessee grows in number with every whipping at the hands of the Big Orange on the gridiron. (Wasn't that 1996 upset — now five UT victories ago — supposed to change things?) And this burst of animosity has been relatively independent of the cross-state recruiting rivalry now sizzling between Tiger coach John Calipari and his orange-blazered counterpart, Bruce Pearl.
All of which makes Saturday's contest between the top-ranked Tigers and the Vols (until this season, UT had never been ranked among the nation's top three) the biggest game between state rivals Tennessee has ever seen, one of the three or four biggest games in the entire country this season, and — depending on the result — the biggest regular-season game in Tiger history. (Full disclosure: I'm the son of two Tennessee alumni and the husband of a Memphis alum. I won't lose Saturday night, but I surely won't win, either.)
What would a victory mean for these teams, these schools, these two regions of Tennessee hoopdom? For the Vols, it would be the biggest win in years over a school not named Kentucky. (That win over Florida a year ago was an upset, but the Gators are Johnny-Come-Latelies relative to the basketball history celebrated by Memphis.) It would be a shot across the bow by Pearl for any recruits in Calipari's clutches who might have considered Knoxville nothing more than women's basketball country. And it would keep a Tiger program under heel in a series somehow led by the Volunteers, 11-7. (Note that the two schools only played one game — in 1969 — before the 1988-89 season.)
And for the home team? The win would be a final, pre-NCAA tournament validation for the gospel Calipari has preached since his arrival here eight years ago. League be damned! Memphis is a program that will compete for national championships. Any other program, regardless of conference, with the stones to visit FedExForum will be welcomed with an old-fashioned, Southern-flavored sock in the mouth. (That's a metaphor, people. No excuses for the post-game behavior last weekend in Birmingham.)
If you go back to December 23, 2006, when Memphis began a 25-game winning streak by beating Middle Tennessee at FedExForum, the Tigers have a record of 50-1. That, basketball fans, is a pinch-me, rub-your-eyes, you-gotta-be-kidding-me record for any college team, be they members of C-USA, the ACC, or the YMCA. The U of M has not, of course, played the Tennessee Vols over the course of those 51 games. And a team's ultimate legacy is determined on the brightest of stages, in front of the most eyes and cameras, with the most at stake. (Just ask the New England Patriots.) Saturday's bout in downtown Memphis between the two best college basketball teams in the country will not determine a championship. But it will be a moment on this city's sports timeline never to be forgotten.
Frank Murtaugh is managing editor of Memphis magazine. He writes a weekly sports column on memphisflyer.com.