The last time the Tennessee Volunteers traveled across state to play in Memphis, the game buzzed with excitement for a week prior: both teams were ranked #1 and #2 respectively, Memphis was undefeated, and Tennessee was looking for a season-signifying win. Two years later, they returned to the battlegrounds with much less fanfare. The Tigers are unranked with a depleted roster thanks to the well-documented departure of former coach John Calipari. Tennessee is ranked 14th in both major polls, but still has plenty of question marks.
I decided to take the game in first hand for EJSIC as it represents one of the hottest in-state rivalries in college basketball outside of Kentucky-Louisville and North Carolina-Duke. Some questioned how heated the game would be with the absence of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl’s archrival on the opposite sideline. All questions were answered when Volunteer guard J.P. Prince thuggishly danced in the face of Elliot Williams before the opening tip. The animosity continued with Tiger Will Coleman landing an unnecessary shoulder into the chest of Wayne Chism which resulted in double technical fouls.
Other than the antics, the only thing worse than the actual basketball played on the court was, according to my amigos at home watching the game, Jimmy Dykes’ less than insightful and sometimes outlandish commentary on the game. (I recorded the game on DVR and I’ll give him a listen later to see how bad it was. I wonder if he used his spice formula to determine if either team is a Final Four contender?)
The Good: Doneal Mack. Throughout his time at Memphis, Mack has been labeled as a player who did not stand out in the big games. Today, he was easily the best player the Tigers had on the floor. He was unafraid to take shots and led the team with 15 points. He fouled out of the game with just less than 4 minutes left which left a gaping hole in the Memphis offense.
The Bad: Memphis’ other guards. All Tiger guards not named Mack went a combined 4 for 23. Willie Kemp, Elliot Williams, and Roburt Sallie can not play that bad for this particular Memphis team. The depth is not there for the starters to have an off-night.
The Ugly: The inside game. Rebounding, the forwards, etc were all ugly for Memphis today. They were outrebounded 42-26 and thoroughly outplayed down low. Tennessee went after the ball in the air, Memphis did not. Starting forward Pierre Henderson-Niles managed 2 rebounds in just 15 minutes of play. Rebounding was a key in the Tigers recent loss to UMass and it was again today.
The Good: Wayne Chism. The starting center has made his fair share of boneheaded plays in the past, but today, he was remarkably efficient. Chism finished with 15 points and 9 rebounds including a perfect 5 for 5 at the free throw line as well as 5 of 7 from the field. Maybe the most surprising stat of the game: he didn’t attempt a single three pointer. Chism has often been a player who wandered behind the arc and even demonstrated poor decision making with late game three point attempts. Today, he played very well.
The Bad: Point guard play. It has been the thorn in Bruce Pearl’s side during his tenure in Knoxville. It usually rears its head in March when the games get tighter, but it was pretty evident today. Starting PG Bobby Maze played 21 minutes, amassed 3 measly points, 0 assists, and fouled out of the game. Backup Melvin Goins managed to score 8 points, but committed 2 turnovers against only 1 assist. They even let PF Tyler Smith run the position a few times during the game. If they want to win when it matters, Pearl has to find someone who can provide quality play for an entire game against elite competition.
The Ugly: Tennessee’s ability to put the game away. The Vols led by 13 points with 13:14 to go in the 2nd half before allowing the Tigers to claw back into the game. The Vols held a significant edge on the boards, contained Elliot Williams to one of his worst games of the season, and held the Tigers to a low 31% shooting for the game. Yet, they only won by 7 points. The Vols suffered a heavy drought in the latter stages of the game when Memphis switched to a 2-3 zone which it cannot do against better competition.
Overall: The Memphis fans before the game on Beale Street and throughout the two hours at FedEx Forum made for a great atmosphere. The Bar-B-Que nachos were delicious and I enjoyed the time. However, I don’t see much success for either of these teams in the month that matters given their current states. Of course, there’s plenty of time left for both to make improvements. Next year’s game should provide some more fireworks in the rivalry with quite a few future phenoms signed to play for both teams.