For one last time until who-knows-when, the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis will gather Friday night for a men's basketball game. UT's 21,678-seat Thompson-Boling Arena will be near capacity.
And then ...
"We will not play Tennessee anymore as long as I'm the head coach and I'm doing my scheduling," Memphis coach Josh Pastner told the News Sentinel on Monday.
An eight-year, home-and-home contract between Tennessee and Memphis comes to a close Friday. The Vols have won four. The Tigers three. An additional meeting at the 2011 Maui Invitational went to Memphis, evening the seven-year series, 4-4.
Friday is the rubber match.
Then it's over. No plans exist to renew the contract.
"If they aren't going to do it then we have to move forward and schedule games we need to schedule," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Tuesday. "That's where we are. You've heard Josh say why he doesn't want to play and that's fine, I can respect that. For us, we'd like to continue, but if not, we have to move forward."
Pastner firmly rejects scheduling any future meeting. He first said so as a second-year head coach in 2011, telling Knoxville radio station WNML-AM, "I don't think it does us any good." The reason: Inviting the Vols to play on the fertile hoops soil of Memphis offers UT an unneeded recruiting platform.
"Over time I've evolved as a head coach on that," Pastner said Monday. "My thing (in playing Tennessee) is, I don't want to be locked into something that we don't have to be locked into. I'd rather have way more flexibility (in scheduling) and (play) different teams and this and that — as long as the one team on the schedule every year is Louisville."
According to Pastner, Louisville has essentially replaced Tennessee as the long-term rival on the Memphis schedule. They've met the past two seasons with Louisville winning each. The Tigers will face the Cardinals as Big East Conference mates next year and continue the rivalry as a traditional home-and-home series from 2014-15 onward after Louisville moves to the ACC.
"I think Tennessee is a very good basketball program, I have great respect for them and I think it's a high-level game, but I don't look at playing Tennessee any differently than playing Gonzaga or Xavier or Florida or Texas or UCLA," Pastner said. "Those are national games. The rival game for our fan base, our city, is Louisville, not Tennessee."
In a wildly successful series, either Memphis or Tennessee has been ranked in all but one of the seven contracted meetings. The unranked Tigers beat the unranked Vols, 69-51, at FedExForum last season.
A Feb. 23, 2008, matchup — No. 2 Tennessee's 66-62 victory at No. 1 Memphis — stands as arguably the greatest college basketball game ever played within the state lines.
That season's Sports Illustrated preseason preview featured UT's Chris Lofton and Memphis's Chris Douglas-Roberts on the cover. Large, black letters spelling RIVALRY! splashed across them.
UT's narrow win lived up to the billing. The New York Times called it, "The biggest sporting event in the history of Memphis" and concluded, "The sublime game helped usher college basketball into the spotlight."
Six years later, the rivalry is at its vanishing point.
In a comment through university spokesman Jimmy Stanton, UT athletic director Dave Hart said, "Our position hasn't changed, and we certainly want to continue to play the University of Memphis series. We haven't come to a final resolution with them yet."
The current agreement between Memphis and Tennessee dates back to a scheduling skirmish between the two in the fall of 2003.
At the time, Memphis coach John Calipari had zero interest in scheduling a home-and-home series against UT. He said, perhaps, the two could play in Nashville, if at all.
Then-Tennessee athletic director Mike Hamilton countered by cancelling all remaining football dates between the two.
An accord was made between Hamilton and then-Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson. In December 2003. UT agreed to play the Tigers in football five times in a nine-year period (one remaining game is scheduled for 2017) and Memphis agreed to play the Vols in an eight-year home-and-home series beginning in 2005-06.
That agreement has come to pass.
Current Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen, who replaced Johnson in June, was unavailable for comment.
Asked if he'd champion Calipari's scheduling solution, Pastner replied, "No, I have no interest in doing it in Nashville on a neutral court, either."
Tennessee and Memphis State, as it was known, first met in basketball in 1969. The Vols won, 72-51. Nineteen years passed before the two began a 14-year home-and-home series that ended in 2001.
UT leads the all-time series 14-10.
"It's one of the better rivalries in the nation," said Tennessee sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes, a Memphis native and first UT recruit from the city since Dane Breadshaw in 2002. "It should continue. Guys like me grew up watching the Memphis-Tennessee series. I'll be devastated if they choose to cancel it."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn