Saturday brings a game people on both sides of the state have been waiting for — The No. 13 Memphis Tigers play the second of a three-game series against the No. 19 Tennessee Vols in Knoxville. Last year’s game at FedExForum got testy in the final moments, with the Vols beating the Tigers 102-92.
But this is literally a completely different Tiger team – one that reflects Hardaway’s recruiting prowess, reeling in the No. 1 class in America. Even with projected NBA No. 1 pick James Wiseman sidelined with NCAA eligibility issues, it will be a heated matchup.
Arguably, Memphis got caught looking ahead to the Tennessee game during their road game at University of Alabama-Birmingham. The UAB Blazers came out with energy and the Tigers found themselves down by 20 and headed for their second loss of the season. They woke up in the second half on defense, holding UAB to just 17 points and taking a 65-57 win.
Meanwhile, Tennessee is ranked No. 19 after an 8-1 start to their season. They’re coming off a 72-43 rout of Florida A & M University, and will be just as well-rested as the Tigers when they clash. Here are some key things to look for as the Tigers try to take Rocky Top:
Survive and Advance
Fans hoped that the Tigers were deep enough to withstand Wiseman’s 12-game suspension until he returns in January. So far, so good.
The Tigers are a perfect 6-0 with Wiseman out, and only six games remain before his return. Lester Quiñones Jr., who injured his wrist against Ole Miss, has remained physically active and is awaiting clearance from the doctors to return to the court.
If Quiñones doesn’t play – and he’s not expected to – it will be interesting to see what reception he gets in Knoxville. Quiñones quickly embraced this rivalry, sparring on social media with Vol fans.
Come to Knoxville for the game this year if the Go-Go’s don’t have a game that night 😉 https://t.co/zEIKErs6IZ
— Lester Quinones (@Effort_les) August 19, 2019
The atmosphere last year in FedExForum was great for last year’s game. This year will not be any different.
Both head coaches Penny Hardaway and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) have added fuel to the fire. Barnes, by going on local radio implying that during last season’s testy game, some Tigers had their “fists balled.” That’s turned into an online meme – a UT social media account used a GIF with a fist to sell tickets to the game.
Also last season, Hardaway had a hot mic moment where he was caught saying, “F— Rick Barnes” as he was leaving a press conference. It appears less likely that the series will continue after next season’s game in Nashville. The two coaches clearly don’t like one another — as if the game needed any additional fire.
Wins aside, the Tigers miss Wiseman the most on the boards. Hardaway and his staff have constantly reminded his players to box-out and rebound more effectively.
The Tigers have used all types of combination to fix this area, but nothing has seemed to work. But despite the flaw, Memphis has found ways to win. A improvement in this area against Tennessee may allow the Tigers to leave with a signature win.
But the Vols will have something to say about that. While the Tigers are outrebounding opponents by 4.9 rebounds per game, Tennessee is outrebounding opponents by 8.5 rebounds per game. The battle of the boards may decide the game.
The Tigers and Vols will tip-off at 2 p.m. CT on Saturday, Dec. 15, and can be seen on ESPN.