There are those who believe that the rivalry between Duke and North Carolina is not only the best in college basketball, but the best in all of sports.
It makes sense. Two of college basketball’s greatest programs. Same conference. Eight miles apart. Both wear blue.
Every season, these two square off in games with a helluva lot more significance than just a non-conference resume boost.
Isn’t there something to be said, then, for a rivalry that can remain just as passionate, as spiteful, and as intense for both the players and the fans when there isn’t anything more to play for than pride?
Like, for example, the one between Memphis and Tennessee that resumes tonight. Melvin Goins explains:
“Everything between us and Memphis is personal. Everything,” said Goins, a senior point guard. “I know we don’t like them, and our fans don’t like their fans, and they don’t like us too much, either.”
To be fair, saying “there isn’t anything more to play for than pride” between these two isn’t exactly true. We are, in fact, talking about two teams that are annually in and around the top 25 and fighting for an NCAA Tournament berth. Its not No. 1 vs. No. 2 like it was in the 2008 installment of the rivalry — a game that resulted in fisticuffs between Joey Dorsey and Duke Crews before it even tipped — but the 2010-2011 teams both have quite a bit on the line.
For Tennessee, the issues are obvious. After an incredible start to the season that included a rise to No. 7 in the country after wins over Villanova and Pitt, Tennessee has done basketball’s equivalent of this. They lost three straight games to Oakland, Charlotte, and USC before barely hanging on to beat Belmont and UT-Martin. Then on New Year’s Eve, the Vols were run out of the gym by the College of Charleston 91-78, dropping their record to 9-4 on the season.
And after this visit from Memphis, Tennessee will be losing their head coach.
Remember that eight game suspension that SEC Commissioner Mike Slive handed down to Bruce Pearl back in November? Well, it kicks in on Saturday when Tennessee begins their SEC slate with a trip to Arkansas, meaning this Memphis game is his last chance to get this team back on track before he starts missing games. Because if one of the country’s best coaches cannot convince this team to take the ball to the basket and to play some defense, how will assistant Tony Jones?
For Memphis, the issues are a little more subtle to the casual observer.
The Tigers are 11-2 on the year. Their only losses have come to Georgetown and Kansas, who are both favorites to win their respective conferences. But all you have to do is glance at the schedule Memphis has played to realize this team’s record is inflated.
The Tiger’s best win came at home against Miami FL. Arkansas State and Austin Peay both went to overtime before losing to Memphis. Texas A&M-CC and Tennessee State both lost by five points to the Tigers despite leading late in the game. “Impressive” has not been a term used all that often to describe Josh Pastner’s team this season. With the only RPI-boosting games on the Tiger’s schedule being two matchups left against Central Florida and a date with Gonzaga, picking up an out-of-conference win over a top four SEC team will be key if Memphis doesn’t end up winning the C-USA Tournament.
Neither the Tigers nor the Vols have quite lived up to expectations this season.
But there is still plenty more than pride on the line when these two teams take to Thompson-Boling Arena tonight.