Commentary

Coaches' show promises to be as exciting as the 1 vs. 2 showdown

Originally Published: February 22, 2008
By Chris Low | ESPN.com

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- The game itself, the state of Tennessee's answer to hoops Nirvana, ought to be a treat.

Tale Of The Tape

Who has the edge in the highly anticipated Memphis-Tennessee matchup?

Memphis Tennessee
PPG 80.8 83.9
RPG 42.5 38.2
APG 16.3 19.1
TOs/Game 12.9 13.1
BPG 6.5 3.4
FG% 46.6 46.0
3FG% 33.8 36.2
FT% 58.8 64.4
Leading scorer C. Douglas-
Roberts
, 17.9 ppg
C. Lofton, 15.4 ppg
Leading rebounder J. Dorsey, 10.5 rpg T. Smith, 6.5 rpg
Leading assists D. Rose, 4.3 apg T. Smith, 3.7 apg

No. 1 vs. No. 2 a week before the calendar flips to March. Two teams with deep, talented rosters that play the game at warp speed. Two universities from opposite ends of the state that identify with each other about as well as the Clintons and the Bushes.

"The tickets are going like they're Super Bowl tickets," said Memphis coach John Calipari, noting that some courtside seats for Saturday's Memphis-Tennessee showdown (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) at the FedEx Forum were selling for more than $5,000 for a pair. "It's incredible. I even said to somebody at my radio show, 'If you could sell your two tickets down low and have your child's tuition for the year paid, go watch it on TV and have a party.'

"It's crazy what is happening. It's taken on a life of its own."

Indeed it has, and the best part of it all is that the game within the game might actually be even more entertaining than what happens on the court.

If it were up to Calipari, Memphis wouldn't even be playing Tennessee in a home-and-home series. His rationale: There's no need to. Memphis is a national program, and this is more of a regional game.

Calipari's solution would be to play the Vols in Nashville every so often and call it the "Governor's Cup."

To continue playing in Memphis and Knoxville -- as the current contract calls for through the 2012-13 season -- would be for selfish reasons, according to Calipari.

Translation: Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl merely wants to use the game to break into Memphis' fertile recruiting grounds.

Keith Easterwood, a key figure on the Memphis AAU basketball scene for the past 27 years, said it's no secret that Calipari and Pearl don't like each other. Easterwood is an admitted Memphis fan, but can't help but be impressed with the inroads Pearl and his staff are making in Memphis.

"The staffs are so similar. You see them everywhere, and they're recruiting the same guys," Easterwood said. "Maybe that's why they don't really care for each other. [Calipari] and Pearl are a lot alike. They're not going to back down, and they're always working it.

"I've seen Cal at three games in one night. His energy and work ethic is unmatched by anybody I've seen out there, maybe anybody other than Pearl and his staff.

"I think the whole thing is great for basketball in our state. It's healthy for everybody, and I pray it doesn't end. It's just so much fun to see these two programs at this level."

Calipari isn't shy about tossing a few barbs Pearl's way, and Pearl isn't shy about reciprocating.

On Thursday, Calipari cracked that Memphis ought to just "secede" from the rest of the state and become its own state. He's made it known that the Tigers will get the prospects they truly want in Memphis and everybody else -- Tennessee included -- can have what's left.

[+] EnlargeFedEx Forum
Memphis GrizzliesThe Memphis vs. Tennessee game at the FedExForum Saturday is suddenly the hottest ticket around.
"Now, you have some schools that recruit every kid in the city and hope to get one because they can't break into the city -- or they take them as transfers," Calipari told the "Memphis Commercial Appeal" earlier this week. "They do whatever they can just to get a kid from the city to get their foot in the door. I'm not doing that to kids."

The transfer reference was obviously to Tennessee sophomore guard J.P. Prince, who transferred to Tennessee from Arizona after playing at White Station High in Memphis.

For good measure, Calipari has a couple of times this week referred to Prince as "P.J." instead of "J.P." An innocent slip-up? Maybe. Then again, maybe not.

Make no mistake, Pearl is every bit as much of a showman as Calipari and can spin and manipulate situations with the best of them. Some have suggested that he revels in the verbal jousting with Calipari. If for nothing else, it's a clear sign that he has Calipari's attention.

Pearl, though, said he only responds when Calipari spouts off something that's grossly inaccurate.

"He'll throw one across my bow, and I'll take the bait," said Pearl, wearing his trademark smile. "By the way, he's better at this than I am. He's way better. I cannot get into a verbal spat with him. I'm good, but he's the best."

Pearl still scoffs at Calipari's reasoning for not wanting to play this series on a home-and-home basis.

Tennessee vs. Memphis

The stage is set Saturday night (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET) at the FedEx Forum for No. 2 Tennessee against No. 1 Memphis. Game Preview

Chris Low: State of Tennessee preps for hoops clash

Marty Dobrow: This isn't Calipari's first 26-0 rodeo

Weekend Watch: Vols-Tigers promises to be high-flying affair

"A regional game?" Pearl said shaking his head. "Would they have gotten a No. 1 seed or whatever they got two years ago without playing and beating us? It helped their RPI, so don't tell me it's a regional game."

Had the presidents from the two schools not gotten involved a few years ago, there probably wouldn't be a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle to speak of on Saturday.

Back in the fall of 2003, Calipari decided he didn't want to play the Vols any longer. Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton, who had just taken over for Doug Dickey, countered by saying, "If you're not going to play us in basketball, then we're not going to play you in football."

The presidents of the two schools stepped in, and everybody met in Nashville. What came out of that meeting was an eight-game basketball series and 10-game football series. This will be the fourth game of the hoops series.

Hamilton said he would not approve playing any of the remaining games with Memphis in Nashville. Pearl has played at least one nonconference game in Nashville all three seasons he's been at Tennessee. He also went to Chattanooga earlier this season to play UT-Chattanooga.

"I want to be able to give our fans a big game with Memphis every other year in Knoxville," Pearl said. "Our medical school is in Memphis, and we have a lot of fans in that part of the state. We are the University of Tennessee, and that means taking our team to all corners of the state."

So far, Pearl hasn't had much recruiting success in Memphis. He did get Wayne Chism out of nearby Bolivar, but lost out to the Tigers on Chism's Bolivar teammate, Willie Kemp. Memphis and Tennessee both lost out this past November to Duke on highly rated guard Elliot Williams, who plays at Saint George's Independent School in Memphis.

"Cal would have loved to have had Elliot Williams," Easterwood said. "But as long as he didn't go to Tennessee, he wasn't going to be too upset."

Pearl's not one to discourage easily, and there are sure to be more recruiting battles along the way. He's also not ready to concede anything -- even to a television reporter.

In 2006, Pearl attended a fund-raiser in Memphis and was being interviewed by a local television reporter. Over and over, the reporter tried to get Pearl to admit on camera that Memphis was clearly the pre-eminent basketball program in the state.

Finally, Pearl snapped.

"I think it's a horse[bleep] question, to tell you the truth," Pearl said tersely and with the cameras rolling. "OK? That's what I think."

On Saturday, the biggest coup might be merely getting inside the FedEx Forum. Pearl called Calipari earlier this week looking for tickets for former Tennessee football great Peyton Manning, who will attend the game.

[+] EnlargeWayne Chism
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesBruce Pearl is trying to make inroads into the Memphis recruiting scene, recently convincing Wayne Chism, from nearby Bolivar, to take his game to Knoxville and play for Tennessee.
Calipari joked that he found Pearl some tickets way up in the rafters and then later said that Memphis was able to accommodate him. On Thursday, Pearl was grumbling that Calipari had told the media about the request.

Jimmy Sexton, one of the country's most prominent sports agents, lives in Memphis and has never seen anything remotely close to the ticket hunt for this game.

"It's the hardest ticket I've ever seen in sports, ever," Sexton said. "It's harder than any Super Bowl, harder than any World Series. There's just not that many people selling tickets. I've had so many of the players that I represent call and ask me to help them get tickets. I've told them, 'There just aren't any.'"

At the end of the day, Calipari says this game is big enough that he doesn't need to use Pearl and Pearl doesn't need to use him. Both teams are probably locks for no worse than a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Memphis (26-0) may be a No. 1 seed regardless of what happens Saturday, and Tennessee (24-2) could perhaps cement a No. 1 seed by winning.

Either way, sit back and enjoy.

"This is an ego game … for their fans and our fans; for their team and our team; for their staff and our staff," Calipari said.

Pearl said he would be the same as he always is -- on edge. But he's also not taking any of this for granted.

And neither should anybody in Tennessee, from the French Broad River to the Mississippi River, who loves hoops.

Or a good show.

"It's going to be a great barometer and a great event," Pearl said. "If I'm a high school player or a high school coach in Tennessee, I'm proud of what's going to take place on Saturday because this stuff is usually reserved for Indiana and Kentucky and North Carolina."

Chris Low is a college football and basketball writer for ESPN.com.

Chris Low | email

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