While John Calipari won’t be on the sidelines, his departure from Memphis is unlikely to lessen the rivalry between his former school and Tennessee.
The 14th-ranked Volunteers visit the Tigers on Thursday - the first time in nine years Tennessee is in the Top 25 while Memphis is not.
Although in-state recruiting battles between the two programs is a big source of the rivalry between Memphis and Tennessee, it’s been even more heated recently, in large part because of personal issues between Calipari and Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl.
Calipari left to join Kentucky last spring but his exit is unlikely to dampen the intensity of the matchups between the schools, especially given how contested the last two games were.
Two seasons ago, top-ranked Memphis lost 66-62 to No. 2 Tennessee, and the rematch last season was decided by two points in the Tigers’ favor.
This will be Josh Pastner’s first time as a head coach in the series, although he experienced it last season as an assistant under Calipari. The Tigers are unranked for the first time in a game against Tennessee since 2001, and this will be the first time they’ve been unranked while the Volunteers are in the Top 25 since 2000.
For Tennessee (9-2), the game is especially significant as it begins a critical stretch in its schedule. After taking on Memphis, it has two more non-conference games, including a visit from No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10, before opening SEC play.
The Volunteers are coming off a 99-78 win over North Carolina A&T on Dec. 23, bouncing back after a 77-55 loss at Southern California. Tennessee shot 52.5 percent in the first half to jump out to a 55-27 lead at the break. Five players scored in double figures, led by Tyler Smith who finished with 16 points, six rebounds, three assists and four steals. Kenny Hall also had 16 points.
“I believe we are getting better,” said Hall, who had scored 14 total points in his previous nine games, going scoreless in the previous three. “The USC game was a slight stumble, but we learned from it.”
The Volunteers’ struggles from 3-point range continued as they shot 5 of 26 (19.2 percent) beyond the arc, although freshman walk-on Skylar McBee was 3 of 6. Tennessee is shooting 16.2 percent (11 of 68) from 3-point range the last three games.
Memphis (9-2) has won two straight since a 73-72 loss at Massachusetts on Dec. 19. The Tigers are coming off an 87-67 win over Indiana University-Purdue University on Monday in which they shot 50 percent for the third time in four games.
Elliot Williams scored a career-high 27 points, going 5 of 6 from long range, while Willie Kemp had nine points and a personal-best eight assists without a turnover.
“I give a lot of credit to Willie Kemp,” Pastner said. “He had eight assists and zero turnover today, which is a terrific stat. He did a really nice job. I”m very proud of Willie.”
The win was Memphis’ 23rd straight at home, including eight consecutive victories there this season by an average of 27.4 points. The Tigers’ last loss at FedEx Forum was against Syracuse on Dec. 20, 2008.
Pastner’s team also has a difficult upcoming schedule with two more non-conference games, including Wednesday’s contest at No. 5 Syracuse, before opening the Conference USA portion of its schedule.