Cuonzo Martin on Tennesssee's win over Chattanooga
Sparks flew the last time Tennessee and Memphis collided on Nov. 22 in the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
There's no reason to believe tonight's men's basketball rivalry game amid the electric confines of FedEx Forum (TV: FSTN, 8 p.m.) will be any different.
The Tigers prevailed in the first meeting, 99-97 in a double-overtime affair that featured 53 fouls and numerous other collisions and contested calls while ranking as the highest scoring contest in the teams' 23-game series history.
The Vols (7-6) bring a season-high four-game win streak into tonight's contest and a newfound sense of confidence against a talented Tigers (8-5) team that has struggled more than many expected.
"It's not so much we are disappointed; the teams we have lost to are good teams and they've all been ranked,'' Memphis coach Josh Pastner said on the News Sentinel's Sports Page radio show on Tuesday. "We've had some good wins, so we're trying to understand it's too early to judge a season. We've played a very tough non-conference strength of schedule, and Tennessee gives us our last test before we open conference play.''
The Vols are in a similar situation, though UT's SEC schedule — which begins against Florida at Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday (TV: ESPN2, 11 a.m.) — will take a decidedly upward tick while Memphis settles into Conference USA play.
"We've made strides since the last time we played them, as it has been a case of us putting two halves together and getting some consistency in our rotations,'' UT coach Cuonzo Martin said in a phone interview from Memphis on Tuesday night. "Where we went wrong in the first game (against Memphis) was our quick shots led to their transition baskets, and those guys feed off transition baskets.''
No doubt, the Tigers feature one of the quickest backcourts in the nation, and Pastner's team is built to run the floor and excel in one-on-one play.
The Vols, who benefitted from a 32-point, 20-rebound effort from power forward Jeronne Maymon in the last meeting, have worked to be more selective with their shots on offense. On defense, Tennessee has improved its ability build walls and prevent dribble penetration.
As much as the game will feature the two coaches adjusting their Xs and Os, there also is a human element.
While Memphis aims to show its home fans that it's ready to regain unquestioned status as the dominant team in the series after the close call in Hawaii, the Vols are in search of revenge and validation.
"In Maui, we were trying to figure out who we were as a team, and we look back and realize how close we were to beating that team, so we go into the game with a lot of confidence,'' UT senior Cameron Tatum said following the Vols' 76-63 win over Chattanooga on Monday. "It's still fresh on our brains; guys were hurt by that loss because we had a chance to win.
"We feel that was a game we should have won. We had so many mental lapses — mental lapses we're not making now.''
UT point guard Trae Golden, who was 3-of-19 shooting in that loss but provided seven assists and three steals, said this season has been a growing experience.
"I think we're more mature than the first time we played them,'' Golden said. "We've been through a lot of ups and downs as a team, and I understand better what Coach Martin wants from me. So many things, it's hard to explain it all.''
The Vols rallied from 16 points down in Hawaii to send the game into overtime, but Martin said it's important his team stay within striking distance in this contest.
"Playing in Memphis, it's important we feed off the energy and the atmosphere,'' Martin said. "But when you're a competitive player, you have to maintain your focus on the things you need to do to win the game.
"For us, it will be a matter of sticking to the script.''
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32