MEMPHIS, Tenn. — This is the stage Penny Hardaway wants at Memphis.
Excitement, anticipation and a sell-out crowd for the biggest game the Tigers have played in years. That's the setting for Saturday's showdown with No. 3 Tennessee after a nearly six-year break in the series.
"I can feel that the fans want this game as bad as we want it," Hardaway said earlier this week. "The Tennessee fans are bragging right now and sitting in a great spot, which deservedly so. They've earned that."
Yes, they have. The schools are separated by 381 miles on Interstate 40 but in this matchup, the gap between the programs is much wider.
Rick Barnes has guided Tennessee (7-1) to its highest ranking in The Associated Press Top 25 in more than a decade. The Vols, led by Bruce Pearl, headed to Memphis in February 2008 ranked second in the nation and upset John Calipari's top-ranked Tigers 66-62 in one of just five 1 vs. 2 regular-season showdowns in the 2000s. Those Vols rose to No. 1 two days after that big win.
Hardaway's Tigers (5-4) are not there yet.
But simply hiring Hardaway last March to coach the former NBA All-Star's alma mater has started reviving a Memphis program that had withered far from the standard Calipari set. Josh Pastner, Calipari's successor, is credited — at least in Tennessee's game notes — with ending the annual game between these rivals. Memphis has won the last three, including the last Jan. 4, 2013, in Knoxville.
Barnes worked with old friend Tubby Smith , Pastner's replacement, to re-start this rivalry. Tennessee and Memphis signed a three-year contract that includes a game in Knoxville next season before meeting in the middle of the state in Nashville in 2020-21. Memphis fired Smith in March with attendance and interest dwindling in the Tigers.
Saturday's game will end the second-longest drought in a series that started in 1969. Tennessee and Memphis went 18 seasons without playing each other after a game in 1969-70 until 1988-89. The Volunteers hold a 14-11 edge in a series that was at its best with Calipari and Pearl fighting for recruits off the court and most points on the scoreboard.
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The series could once again have national implications under Barnes and Hardaway.
"You've got two in-state schools that have had great success in basketball," Barnes said. "Penny Hardaway, he is doing a great job. He's got his guys playing really hard. They get up and down the floor as quick as anybody we've played. And they really play really, really hard, and you have to admire the way they've gotten better. They're playing their best basketball right now they have all year."
The Vols are coming off a 76-73 upset of then-No. 1 Gonzaga on Dec. 9 in Phoenix, Arizona. Memphis (5-4) has won two straight after downing UAB 94-76 last weekend.
"They're still the hunters," Hardaway said. "You know they're saying, 'We're not the hunted because we're No. 3. Until they get the No.1, they still feel like, 'Hey, we're still hunting the big dogs.' So we have to do the same thing."
Hardaway played — and lost — twice to Tennessee when he played for Memphis. He remembers the bright lights in Knoxville when he lost to a Vols team featuring future NBA player Allan Houston and Hardaway's own cousin, LaMarcus Golden, at point guard. Hardaway went 2-0 as a player at Memphis against Top Five opponents on his own court.
This game easily sold out and will be the only fifth time the Tigers have had a crowd of 18,400 or more since moving into the FedExForum for the 2004-05 season. This is the last chance for Memphis to grab a big nonconference win along with a big step back toward the standard Tigers' fans expect against the team they hate the most.
So Hardaway plans to have more than a few cough drops at the ready on Saturday.
"I hope the atmosphere Saturday is as crazy as it's ever been, as loud as it's ever been and I'm going to be so hoarse that I can't even do the media afterward," Hardaway said. "My voice is gone. I mean that's how I want it to be."