KNOXVILLE — Three games against Memphis in his two-year Tennessee career make Jordan McRae a veteran of the cross-state series.
The junior guard knows what to expect for game No. 4 on Friday night.
“Memphis-Tennessee,” he said Tuesday before pausing for a moment, “it's going to be fun. A lot of people, a lot of energy and a lot of passion's going to be in that game.”
That game might be going away for a while.
Friday night's tilt between the Volunteers and Tigers in Knoxville is the last on the program's current contract, and a renewal of the series doesn't appear imminent. Aside from a four-year hiatus from 2002 to 2005, Tennessee and Memphis have played each other in basketball during the regular season every year since 1988. The programs have split the last eight meetings since 2006.
“It's unfortunate that it may not continue,” Vols backup point guard and Knoxville native Brandon Lopez said. “It's always been a big rivalry. I've been playing against the Memphis guys [on the AAU circuit], being an East Tennessee guy since I was eight or nine years old, and a lot of those guys play for Memphis now. It's always been very competitive.”
The players on both sides are not among the politics. Josh Pastner, the Tigers' fourth-year coach, has maintained his stance against playing Tennessee and reiterated his preference this week.
“We will not play Tennessee anymore as long as I'm the head coach and I'm doing my scheduling,” Pastner told the Knoxville News Sentinel on Monday.
One of the reasons is keeping the Vols out of a recruiting hotbed, but Pastner said at a news conference Wednesday that Louisville is the Tigers' bigger rivals.
“The rival game for us is Louisville,” Pastner said, according to the Commercial Appeal. “Since I've been here, the one thing I understand from Tiger Nation is it's the game they want to see on the schedule every single year. Now, I know some media people are Tennessee fans. They disguise themselves as Memphis fans, but they’re really Tennessee fans, and they want to see Memphis-Tennessee.
“Can we play [Louisville and Tennessee]? We can, but we're not. [Athletic director] Tom Bowen [and I], we both see eye to eye on this. Just like the Xavier series. When we're done with them [this year], it's over. We move on. The Tennessee series — move on. It's nothing disrespectful to Tennessee.”
The Cardinals, who won at Memphis earlier this season, are the Tigers' long-time rival from Conference USA, but shortly after Memphis accepted its invitation to join the Big East Conference, Louisville left for the ACC.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said the Vols-Memphis series is “very important” from the recruiting and fan standpoints. He landed five-star forward Jarnell Stokes out of Memphis last December and surprisingly lost five-star forward Austin Nichols to the Tigers this year. The Vols did sign Robert Hubbs, a five-star shooting guard from Dyer County in northwest Tennessee who played on a Memphis-based AAU team.
“We haven't even talked about it, really, and our schedule is set for next year, so we can't do it next year,” Martin said. “Hopefully we can continue this thing in this future. I think it'd be fun for everybody involved.”
With Pastner's stance unlikely to change, Martin and the Vols are going their own direction.
“After they said they weren't going to do it, we had to move forward and schedule games we wanted to schedule,” Martin said. “That's where we are right now. You've heard Josh say the reason why he doesn't want to play it, and that's fine. I can respect that. But for us, we'd like to continue. But if not, we've got to move forward.”
Asked about prior chatter of Tennessee scheduling a neutral-site game in Memphis, Martin said the Vols “possibly” could do that after next season. Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart stressed last year the Vols would maintain a presence in Memphis “one way or another.” Like his coach, Hart wants to continue the series.
“It surprises me that it would end because just this has been a rivalry for so long,” McRae said. “I don't know why. I don't know anything about that stuff.”
Stokes attended four or five Tennessee-Memphis games growing up, including the memorable 2008 matchup in FedEx Forum when the second-ranked Vols beat the top-ranked Tigers.
“I think is one of the better rivalries amongst the nation as far as the history, and I think these are two up-and-coming programs,” Stokes said. “I think it should continue. Guys like me grow up watching the Memphis-Tennessee series.
“I'd be devastated if they chose to cancel it.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...