Wiedmer: Memphis-UT basketball series too good to end

Wiedmer: Memphis-UT basketball series too good to end

January 5th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee's Skylar McBee, left, chases the ball Friday with Memphis' Joe Jackson during an NCA game at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Thompson-Boling Arena was rocking Friday night. For a nonconference basketball game. With the opportunity to have stayed home to watch Johnny Football and his Texas A&M Aggie teammates run roughshod over Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.

Never mind that Tennessee ultimately lost its third straight game to in-state rival Memphis by an 85-80 final score.

Or that the terrific Tigers led by as many as 21 at one point in the second half.

As Memphis guard Joe Jackson -- he of the 20 points, seven assists and four steals -- said afterward, "This game will get you fired up."

And any time folks can get fired up about hoops in the football-crazy South, that's a good thing. A great thing. A stupendous thing.

Unless, apparently, you're Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner, who came out earlier this week in favor of ending the series one day before his athletic director said he'd like to continue it.

So what was Pastner's take on the series after his third straight victory over UT coach Cuonzo Martin pulled the Tigers within 14-11 in the overall series?

"Whenever there's lots of talk about Tiger basketball," he said with a grin, "it's always a positive."

Pastner's former boss -- current Kentucky coach John Calipari -- didn't always see it that way. He felt the Tigers already controlled Memphis, and bringing UT into the Bluff City for games could only threaten that dominance.

Much as Cal has lobbied for the newly dormant Kentucky-Indiana rivalry to go to neutral sites, he wanted to play the Volunteers in Nashville. Thankfully, the UT-Memphis series has thus far remained on campus sites, with the strange exception of last year's November game in the Maui Invitational.

And to listen to Memphis AD Tom Bowen and UT athletic director Dave Hart is to strongly come to the conclusion that this rivalry will continue. Maybe forever.

"I told Dave Hart when I get more definitives we can sit down and talk," Bowen told the (Memphis) Commercial Appeal on Thursday. "I've known Dave a very long time. He is a very good guy."

Added Hart: "We have a strong desire to continue the series with Memphis."

Part of this is surely that Bowen looks at the wet blanket that is the Big East Conference his employer just joined and wants to make certain Memphis has at least one certain BCS conference foe in its future.

Part of it is quite possibly Hart being a basketball guy at heart, having played the sport at Alabama under C.M. Newton more than 40 years ago.

Both men certainly know that packed houses such as Thompson-Boling on Friday night -- even in hoops-haven Memphis -- no longer can be taken for granted.

Especially when that house included U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, new UT football coach Butch Jones and former Big Orange football star Eric Berry, who arguably drew the loudest ovation of the night, and those oddly satisfying UT monochromatic orange Adidas uniforms, which the school said the company has no plans to market at this time. (Key phrase: "At this time.")

At this point we turn this column over to UT junior Jordan McRae, who led the Vols with 26 points: "Look at the crowd tonight. I bet there were 20,000 people here (actually 19,535). Why would you want to stop a series like that?"

Why?

WHY?

There's also that not-so-little matter of the outrageous talent that matures yearly in Memphis high schools, enough talent for both schools to mine for Top 20 success.

Certainly, there are risks if you're Pastner. Let the Big East become the Big Least as Martin builds a giant at UT, and the hard, cold reality of that shift could draw the Bluff City's best east to Knoxville.

But Tigers basketball rarely has been irrelevant for long. Memphis reached the Final Four in the 1970s, the 1980s (though later vacated) and made the national-title game in 2008 (also later vacated).

Basketball is every bit as Memphis as barbecue and the blues. Always has been, always will be.

Which brings us back to McRae, who said, "I think (discontinuing the series) is a dumb idea."

At least he's not alone.