How often has the national college basketball spotlight been pointed at Tennessee?
Not often, notes Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, whose second-ranked Volunteers travel to top-ranked Memphis on Saturday for what promises to be the regular-season game of the year.
“These 1-2 matchups are usually reserved for Tobacco Road or some place in Indiana or Ohio,” Pearl said. “The fact that it’s in Tennessee is something that I think all high school basketball players and high school coaches and different folks that love basketball in the state of Tennessee are certainly proud of.”
A UT-Memphis basketball matchup is usually met with ho-hum indifference. It’s different this time as the schools prepare to meet for the third time in an eight-year deal.
The Tigers are the nation’s only remaining unbeaten team, while the Vols, rejuvenated under Pearl, have risen from the ashes to become a national factor.
Memphis’ 47-game home winning streak, the nation’s longest, will be on the line. It will be the first 1-2 meeting since No. 2 Ohio State beat No. 1 Wisconsin 49-48 on Feb. 25, 2007.
“Them. Us. Everybody in the state. It’s an ego game,” Memphis coach John Calipari said. “That game has been played up to a level that I can’t even begin to tell you.”
Pearl, meanwhile, is attempting to downplay the hype. Even while a national audience tunes in Saturday, the Vols have more in mind than slaying the nation’s No. 1 team.
Tennessee is gunning for its first Southeastern Conference regular-season championship in 41 years. Awaiting the Vols is a trip to No. 20 Vanderbilt on Tuesday followed by a visit from Kentucky and a trip to Florida.
“I feel more pressure playing Auburn at home, in a game we’re supposed to win, than I do in this game,” Pearl said. “There isn’t a lot of pressure, I don’t think, on us for this game.
“It’s a great opportunity for us, but we’re going to get exposed for our strengths and weakness. Regardless of the outcome, where do we go from here?
“What’s on the line Saturday is an in-state rivalry and some bragging rights. The winner is going to feel real good. But that pales in comparison to doing something that hasn’t been done in 41 years.”
Memphis has been ranked No. 1 the past three weeks and sits atop the polls for only the second time in school history. Tennessee had never been ranked higher than No. 4 before this season.