Pressure isn't on Memphis this time

MEMPHIS - After a victory over Rice last Jan. 21, Memphis players went to their locker room at FedExForum and were immediately handed camouflage hats. With a trip to Knoxville coming three days later, the symbolism was obvious.

This season, however, the Tigers aren't using props or psychological ploys to prepare themselves for Thursday's game against Tennessee. This season, all they need to do is look in the mirror.

"The pressure isn't on us," senior guard Doneal Mack said. "No one expects us to win."

Though that might be a stretch - the Tigers (9-2) will have more than a puncher's chance, especially at home - there's no doubt that No. 14-ranked Tennessee (9-2) is the clear favorite for the first time in a long time.

Since this series resumed in 2005-06, Memphis has come in as the higher-ranked team, including last January when the Tigers were No. 22 and the Volunteers were out of The Associated Press poll. And despite the consensus that Tennessee has not played up to expectations this season, Bruce Pearl's team has an edge in big-game experience, NBA-type talent and national reputation.

"The pressure's on Tennessee. We go in completely the underdog," coach Josh Pastner said. "The pressure is squarely on them. We have nothing to lose. They're competing with Kentucky for an SEC title. They're a top-10 team and us, to have a chance to win, we have to absolutely use every ounce of energy on every possession we can."

The only other time the Tigers had to embrace an underdog role this season, they did it enthusiastically in a 57-55 loss to No. 1 Kansas.

But playing Tennessee is different.

Memphis players and fans consider the Tigers the state's preeminent basketball program, an assertion supported by decades of NCAA Tournament history. Tennessee, however, has a 12-8 edge head to head against Memphis and scored arguably the biggest victory in program history the last time it visited FedExForum.

Not only did the Vols' 66-62 win on Feb. 23, 2008, ruin Memphis' 26-0 record, but it shifted a No. 1 national ranking to Knoxville for the first time.

Because of that game, and his intense personal rivalry with Pearl, former coach John Calipari did something last season that was highly unusual for him. For years, Calipari held to a firm stance that no regular-season game should be emphasized over any other, even a rivalry game. But last year, he broke from the script and wanted his players to be sky high against Tennessee, thus the camouflage hats.

It worked, as the Tigers won a slugfest, 54-52, in front of a packed house at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Now, the Tigers can't rely on Pastner to provide them with the emotional incentive to beat UT. As a newcomer to this rivalry, Pastner refused after Monday's victory over IUPUI to put any extra importance on this game. He also eschewed any comments that would stoke thoughts of a rift between himself and Pearl.

"He's won a lot of games, and he's done a good job wherever he's been," Pastner said. "I have nothing but respect for him, and he knows that."

Still, it's impossible to deny that Thursday's outcome will be important for the fan bases of both schools. The question is how much the Tigers' players will buy into it and how much significance they'll place on this game.

"Hopefully the way we played (Monday), we can play against Tennessee," senior forward Pierre Henderson-Niles said. "They're good, they have a lot of big men, and we just have to keep playing like we've been playing and hopefully we can battle with them."

Pastner reminded his players that no matter what happens, they still have a game Sunday against Houston Baptist and another the following Wednesday at Syracuse before starting the Conference USA schedule, which will ultimately have more influence over whether the Tigers make the NCAA Tournament.

"They've got a lot on the line," Mack said. "If we come in relentless with the mind-set to compete against them for 40 minutes and be scrappy we'll be fine. The pressure isn't on us. But it's the battle of the state, so whoever wins it is holding down Tennessee, basically."

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