With the curtain likely closing on one of Tennessee’s in-state basketball rivalries, another has intensified dramatically.
If Memphis coach Josh Pastner makes good on his statement to end the series against Tennessee, the SEC’s new scheduling format (the latest byproduct of conference realignment) has given the Vols a more than adequate replacement—more Vanderbilt.
Conference officials paired the Vols and ‘Dores as each other’s lone “permanent rival,” where both teams play a home-and-home series every season (the remaining 18-game schedule will be made up of an annual rotation of four more teams to play a home-and-home series while the rest of the conference will only play once).
It’s unlikely conference officials made this decision in response to the statements from Pastner and Memphis, as noted in their attempt to maintain in-state rivalries with Mississippi St./Ole Miss and Auburn/Alabama. However, the news couldn’t have come at a better time. Losing the series with Memphis is heartbreaking for the program, but a diminished rivalry with Vanderbilt would be devastating.
The matchup also plays well into Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin’s recent efforts to win over support from all areas of the state.
While Pastner has said openly the series with Tennessee gives the Vols a recruiting advantage in talent-rich Memphis, it doesn’t seem Martin will lose a step in luring talent to Knoxville. Increased community outreach through Martin’s SHOT program, coupled with dominance over in-state rivals should maintain easy access for both Martin and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings to Memphis-area recruits.
While the new format lessens traditional rivalries with Kentucky and Florida, Martin and Co. may eventually see the change as a blessing in disguise.