Memphis and Tennessee, who will meet in Knoxville on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, ESPN), have developed one of the most tense rivalries in college basketball. Both programs have quality players and coaches, but ESPN.com’s college basketball experts were asked to weigh on which program will have the most staying power. Our group also made picks for other top games on the weekend slate, including Oregon-Michigan and Gonzaga-Arizona in a couple of matchups of Final Four hopefuls.
If the Memphis and Tennessee basketball programs were stocks, which would you recommend to investors as the best option for a long-term yield?
John Gasaway, college basketball writer: I’m recommending to my investors that they dedicate a small portion of their portfolios to Tennessee at the expense of Memphis based on two factors. First, it’s not clear whether Penny Hardaway will be in this college basketball thing for the long or even the medium haul, and the history of the program in the interim between the tenures of John Calipari and Hardaway is not such to trigger a “buy” recommendation without the current head coach. Second, Tennessee is an SEC program that’s enjoyed recent success. Even if Rick Barnes is hit by a truck or hired away by another program, this will still be an SEC program that’s enjoyed recent success. The Volunteers are the safe buy.
Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I would put money in Tennessee long-term, only because we’ve witnessed a lot of turbulence around the Memphis program in the post-Calipari years. Josh Pastner had his moments but lost the magic Calipari had enjoyed. Then Tubby Smith couldn’t really find a way to get the program going either.
Hardaway is a unique presence with a unique attachment to that school. It’s not as if anyone could just show up at Memphis and attract the talent he’s signed thus far. More importantly, I don’t think Penny will be a 10-year guy at Memphis. Hell, he might not be a five-year guy. If he succeeds with the Tigers, a number of good NBA jobs (that lack NCAA scrutiny) will await him at the next level.
Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: Long-term, I think the answer has to be Tennessee. Memphis has more pop in the short term, but we’re already seeing that even with the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class, the Tigers are still not clearly better than the Volunteers. And Memphis is not going to land the No. 1 class in 2020 (although Hardaway is still in the mix for multiple elite prospects).
The reason I would go with Tennessee long-term is something John alluded to. If Hardaway and Barnes both left tomorrow, chances are Tennessee is getting the better coach. The last time the Vols needed a new coach, they were able to get someone who went to the NCAA tournament in 16 of 17 seasons at his last stop. And since Calipari left, Memphis hasn’t exactly batted 1.000 with its hires.
Jordan Schultz, insider/analyst: What Barnes has done in Knoxville is nothing short of sensational. He has turned the once-dormant Vols into a perennial power — and in a very short time frame, to boot. However, Hardaway has something brewing just down the road in Grind City.
It’s no accident when you land the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. Penny has a connection to his kids that only a former player can grasp. And while he remains in the infancy stages as an in-game coach, the Tigers already run clean sets and play with great effort. The Memphis fan base is extremely passionate and loyal — and to have its favorite son at the helm of it all is a godsend for this proud program.
Earlier this week, our Myron Medcalf identified five teams that have struggled early after perhaps being overhyped in the preseason — which of these teams will we see in the most different light come March?
Schultz: I still really like Texas Tech and its performance over top-ranked Louisville at MSG was a vintage Chris Beard win: big dog against a giant, without its top scorer in blue-chip freshman Jahmi’us Ramsey. While you don’t just replace a player like Jarrett Culver, you can supplant his production — so long as you have the horses.
Ramsey is a legitimate lottery talent who can really score and has the chops to become a big-time defender. I love his game. Meanwhile, Davide Moretti (40.8% career from 3) has made huge shots in the Final Four and is a great leader to have in your backcourt come March. And we know that Beard’s teams only get better throughout the season.
Borzello: It’s easy to go with Texas Tech after what it did against Louisville on Tuesday night, but I’ll take Kentucky. The Wildcats were considered a Final Four and national title contender entering the season, and I don’t think that’s changed because of one off night against Evansville in early November.
John Calipari-coached teams tend to hit their stride later in the season, and with the various injuries the Wildcats have suffered in the first two months, it’s going to be more of the same this season. Kentucky has three high-level guards in Ashton Hagans, Tyrese Maxey and Immanuel Quickley, and the light has turned on for Nick Richards this season. If the Wildcats can make perimeter shots consistently (a big if, for sure), I don’t see too many weaknesses.
Medcalf: I would first like to say Texas Tech fans were quick to remind me that I published that piece about 24 hours before they beat the No. 1 team in the nation. Kudos to Chris Beard & Co. I do think we’ll see North Carolina in a different light. The Tar Heels just aren’t a balanced group right now. Cole Anthony is a gifted athlete but the team hasn’t developed the chemistry we’re accustomed to seeing with a UNC team. But Roy Williams has encountered similar challenges in the past. I do think they’ll evolve into a more confident group as they get more games under their belt. They have freshmen, returnees and grad transfers. A lot of moving parts in Chapel Hill right now.
Gasaway: In March we’ll be looking back at Michigan State in December and thinking, “Man, why was everyone so down on that team just for losing to Kentucky and Duke?” Yes, the Spartans lost to Virginia Tech as well, as the old turnover bug that has bedeviled MSU for years made its appearance once again. But with a certain national player of the year candidate at point guard, games like that have actually been the exception to the rule this season. I’ll admit I’m surprised Tom Izzo’s interior defense hasn’t been better thus far, but this team can score. Don’t write off Michigan State just yet.
Take a look at Joe Lunardi’s most recent bracket and tell us the single most strange thing you see (or don’t see).
Medcalf: That Dayton is a 5-seed and working on its fifth NCAA tournament appearance in eight seasons. We praise Wichita State for its pattern of success as something more than a mid-major but not quite a Power 5. But Dayton deserves more credit for what it has achieved.
What is it about that program, that community, that talent pool that has allowed the Flyers to remain so competitive? I’m not sure. But they’re a scary bunch in 2019-2020 with a player named Obi Toppin who will be a first-round pick next summer. I’m just impressed with the consistency, which is more difficult to achieve for non-Power 5 programs. Anthony Grant is back with another intriguing Dayton crew.
Schultz: I loved the Juwan Howard hire and I believe he will accomplish great things in Ann Arbor, but Michigan will not enter the tournament as a 2-seed. In fact, I’d be surprised if the Wolverines end up slotted within the top four lines. (Note: I picked against them ATS on Daily Wager against both Louisville and Illinois, so you can rest assured I’m not just jumping on their recent struggles.)
Make no mistake: Zavier Simpson is an elite point guard and Isaiah Livers is very good, but there isn’t a clear-cut pro on this roster. Moreover, Michigan is a poor rebounding team and will struggle during the Big Ten gauntlet as a result because it doesn’t create ample second-chance opportunities for itself.
Gasaway: I happen to know Joe’s never received a single negative comment on any of his brackets in all the years he’s been doing this, so I’m afraid this may come as a bit of a shock. But: Virginia a No. 2 seed? Are we sure we’re both watching the same team? These guys can’t throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat, and now we’re handing them one of the top eight spots in the whole field?
When I think “amazing defense, terrible offense, great tournament run,” my mind naturally goes back to Louisville in 2012, the year the Cardinals reached the Final Four and lost to Anthony Davis and Kentucky. The Cards were a No. 4 seed that year, and there’s a fair chance their very bad offense was actually better than what we’ll see from the Cavaliers this season. Just saying, the 2-line feels a smidge high.
Borzello: Going to give you two. One, Butler as a top-four seed! I was super low on Butler entering the season. The Bulldogs finished tied for last in the Big East last season, lost seven of their final nine games and their two best wins all season came in November. With the top seven of the Big East all looking very solid entering the season, it seemed like Butler was headed back to the bottom tier of the conference. Instead, the Bulldogs are off to 9-1 start, with the first loss coming by one at Baylor on Tuesday. They’ve beaten Florida, Stanford, Missouri, Ole Miss and Minnesota and are rightfully among the top 16 teams in the field.
On the other side (and I know the bracket came out before their win over Louisville), how about Texas Tech being among the Next Four Out? The defending national runners-up, a team that has advanced to at least the Elite Eight in back-to-back years, won 58 games the past two seasons — missing the tournament. It was always likely Chris Beard and the Red Raiders would turn things around, but beating the unbeaten No. 1 team in the country on a neutral court to snap a three-game losing streak was quicker than I thought.
ESPN.com expert picks for this weekend’s top games
(Lines, when available, from Caesars Sportsbook. Predictors do not have access to lines when making score predictions.)