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UT, Memphis feel the need for speed
Tonight's long-awaited showdown between No. 1-ranked Memphis and No. 2 Tennessee at FedExForum isn't just being billed as a matchup between the nation's top two college basketball teams. It's also being sold as a collision between two outfits playing a similarly relentless up-tempo style.
If that's true - and it is, at least to a point - then something or someone will have to give. Memphis senior point guard Andre Allen says it won't be the Tigers.
"One team is gonna have to slow down," Allen predicted, "and I know it's not gonna be us."
Tennessee assistant Steve Forbes struck a similarly defiant note when describing his team's commitment to speed.
"Not only do we play fast-paced defense, we also play fast-paced offense," Forbes said. "A lot of teams talk about playing fast, then they walk it up. Well, we don't do that. We try to score quick, we try to get three guys down the floor as fast as we can. We try to attack."
The idea that two of the nation's most athletic and frenetic teams will try to press each other from start to finish makes for an exciting potential subplot to this burgeoning cross-state rivalry. Tennessee (83.9 points per game) and Memphis (80.8) are two of the highest-scoring teams in the country precisely because of their aggressiveness at the offensive end and ability to force turnovers.
Ohio State played and beat both Tennessee and Memphis in the space of two days during last year's NCAA tournament. The Buckeyes also dropped a close decision to the Vols last month in Knoxville. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta, citing the teams' many similar attributes, expects an absorbing, evenly matched contest.
"I think you've got, obviously, two great basketball teams - two deep, talented teams," Matta said. "I think that, defensively, both are pressure-oriented. Memphis may have a little bit more in the shot-blocking category down low. But as far as the quickness, the length, the speed, the pressure that both teams are gonna apply, I think you're looking at a lot of similarities how they're gonna play offensively.
"I think it will be a great basketball game."
One of Calipari's greatest regrets as the Tigers' coach is that he didn't fully unleash his full-court press in last year's Elite Eight loss to Matta's Buckeyes. With freshman point guard Derrick Rose's addition to the lineup, Memphis has increased the pace of its game from a year ago.
Having faced and lost to both the Tigers and Vols this season, Gonzaga forward Josh Heytvelt came away more impressed with Memphis' level of execution.
"They play the same type of game, up-tempo and fast-paced. They play the same type of defense also," Heytvelt said in reference to the man-to-man tactics employed by both Calipari and the Vols' Bruce Pearl. "It's a good matchup. I think Memphis has a little bit of an upper hand. They seem to click a little better than Tennessee."
Middle Tennessee is the only team other than Gonzaga to have faced both Memphis and Tennessee this season. The Blue Raiders were predictably hammered on both occasions, losing 109-40 to the Vols in Knoxville and 65-41 to Memphis in Nashville.
Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis, understandably content to watch this one from the comfort and safety of home, thinks the game could be decided by which team plays best in the halfcourt.
While Davis thinks Tennessee scores more easily in the halfcourt than does Memphis, he also said the Tigers' man-to-man defense is second to none.
"Tennessee can probably score better from the 3-point line than Memphis, especially the way (senior guard Chris) Lofton is shooting the ball right now," Davis said. "They're both really good defensive teams, but Memphis is the best halfcourt defensive team we've faced all year. I think that's the most underrated aspect of their team."
Davis also thinks the Vols would be making a potentially fatal mistake if they choose to press Memphis throughout.
Employing a number of different zone defenses, the Blue Raiders succeeded in slowing Memphis down largely because the Tigers failed to knock down perimeter jumpers. Memphis was just 4-for-19 from beyond the arc against the Blue Raiders.
"We were at our very worst against Tennessee and (the Vols) may have been at their very best," Davis said. "I thought we were more prepared for Memphis. When they make a bunch of threes, they're the best team in the country. But we made it a halfcourt game, and they didn't make a bunch of threes and we were able to stay in the game.
"You want to play (Memphis) in a halfcourt game. Tennessee will play to Memphis' strengths because they'll press 'til it gets broken. Will Bruce press the whole game? That's the question."
Because the game is being played in Memphis, Davis said that "if Tennessee really does try to press the entire game, it plays into Memphis' hands."
Although both teams will certainly attempt to press, they will go about it in different ways.
"With Tennessee, once you get the ball inbounds, the press is off and they're back to their (man-to-man defense)," Davis said. "Memphis continues to trap."
On the offensive end, Pearl said the most important fundamental difference between the teams' offensive philosophies is in what happens after they pass the mid-court line. While Tennessee's Dribble-Drive Motion offense encourages players to penetrate and attack the basket, the Vols tend to be more deliberate if they don't get a shot off in the first few seconds of a possession.
"I would say that Memphis is very committed to fast-breaking basketball and very committed to the secondary break and very committed to the spread and allowing each player to have almost equal access to things, even though (junior guard Chris) Douglas-Roberts still gets most of the shots and there is a pecking order," Pearl said. "For us, we have equal access out of the fast break. But once we get past secondary, we're going to try and have our guys be a little more patient sometimes. We're just not talented enough to shoot it early in the clock a lot. We have to run some clock sometimes."
In the end, though, Memphis junior guard Antonio Anderson thinks that any comparison between the Tigers and Vols boils down to one basic principle.
"They play up and down and they want to run for 40 minutes," he said, "just like us."
When the Tigers and Vols finally tip off tonight, he who hesitates might indeed be lost.
Scott Cacciola contributed to this report.