If Memphis and No. 18 Tennessee played every year, instead of occasionally, it could become one of the great rivalries in college basketball.
Separated by 391 miles of I-40 running from the Mississippi River to the Smoky Mountains, the Tigers and Volunteers have given the country some classic games the last 15-plus years. Saturday’s late-morning tip-off in Nashville has a chance to fall into that category.
“I’ve only gotten to play them once, but I already love this rivalry,” Tennessee forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “I think it’s great. It excites me every time we get to play them, and this is only my second time.
“We get to go to Nashville to do it — heart of the state — I think someone told me that, so I’m ready for that. And I know they’re ready for us.”
That last sentence might have been laughable before Memphis (6-4) took its floor for Tuesday night’s home game with No. 6 Alabama mired in a four-game losing streak. But the Tigers picked that night to realize their vast potential, routing the Crimson Tide 92-78 as their students stormed the court afterward.
Defeats to unbeaten Iowa State, Georgia, Ole Miss and Murray State brought the critics out in full force on coach Penny Hardaway and his team. Hardaway himself ranted about how veteran players weren’t willing to take younger stars like Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren under their wing.
But in a potential season-turner, Hardaway entrusted those same older players with major minutes against Alabama and they delivered. DeAndre Williams scored 20 to lead five players in double figures. Duren scored 14, Landers Nolley added 13, Lester Quinones 12 and Tyler Harris 11.
“We just knew we had to step up and be the veterans that coach wanted us to be and expected us to be from the beginning of the season,” Nolley said.
Williams leads Memphis’ balanced attack with 11.2 ppg, while Bates and Duren each score 10.8 ppg. The Tigers are averaging 77.7 ppg and shooting a solid 47.4 percent from the field, but they have hurt themselves by committing 18.4 turnovers per game.
Memphis still coughed it up 17 times against the Tide, but the difference was the Tigers hit 53.3 percent from the field and drew 20 assists, flashing some of their best ball movement of the season.
The Tigers will need a repeat of that kind of effort against one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Volunteers (8-2) are coming off a 96-52 blowout of USC Upstate Tuesday night, creating 31 points off 21 turnovers and connecting on 55.9 percent of their field goals.
Nkamhoua led the charge with 21 points on 9 of 10 shooting, while freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler chipped in a 15-point, 10-assist double-double. Chandler is the team’s top scorer for the season at 14.6 ppg, while Santiago Vescovi adds 13.1 plus 2.1 steals per game.
Opponents are averaging only 57.9 ppg and converting a measly 38 percent against Tennessee. The website KenPom.com rates the Volunteers as the top team in Division I in defensive efficiency rating.
Tennessee leads the series with the Tigers 15-12.
–Field Level Media