Commentary:

Credit Tubby for giving Arkansas-Memphis a chance

By: Nate Olson
Published: Thursday, May 18, 2017
Memphis head coach Tubby Smith, right, reacts to a play during the first half of an NCAA college basketball against SMU game Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)
Memphis head coach Tubby Smith, right, reacts to a play during the first half of an NCAA college basketball against SMU game Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Dallas. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Tubby Smith may not be as good of a coach as John Calipari, but he is a lot more sensible.

Smith, who is beginning his second year at Memphis, is in talks with Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson about reviving the series between the schools, which used to be regional rivals.

If you remember, Calipari was the coach at Memphis when the series was halted after the 2003 meeting between the two. He dropped this gem of a quote as the reasoning.

"We have to play national games," Calipari told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2002. "You can't play all regional games if you're being a national program. We don't need Arkansas to sell out our building."

Yeah, whatever Cal.

The reason had less to do with the game and more to do with some bad blood that was generated after the Arkansas coaching staff was upset that then-Memphis assistant Tony Barbee had come in contact with J.J. Sullinger during a 90-73 Razorbacks win in 2002 in Memphis.

Because of that spat the two teams didn’t meet the rest of Calipari’s tenure - minus a previously contracted final game the next year - which lasted until 2009. When Josh Pastner, who was on Calipari’s staff, took over the program, he kept in place Calipari's policy of not playing regional opponents and even expanded it to in-state rival Tennessee.

When Smith came to Memphis last year, he began talking to his friend Anderson and a possible game is now in the works for the 2018-19 season.

"Hopefully we can get something started for next year," Anderson said in an interview on the Jason & John radio show in Memphis. "We weren't able to get it in there for this (upcoming season).

"It's one that I think is an ideal, great matchup; bordering states and not only that, but the games of the past. It's always been a great series."

Anderson makes a great point, and history proves it. There have been some great games throughout the series (which Arkansas leads 11-10), including some NCAA Tournament history.

The proximity of the schools allows fans of both teams to travel to road games, and alums living in both areas will help generate more interest. For Arkansas, it was always a no-brainer to play the Tigers because it recruited so well in Memphis. It gave the Razorbacks exposure there.

That is probably another sticking point with Calipari, who prided himself on plucking players off the tradition-rich Memphis playgrounds.

Maybe Smith should be more leery about Arkansas swooping in. After all, his recruiting practices are under scrutiny after an Arkansas prep player chose to honor his commitment to NCAA Division II Ouachita Baptist instead of accepting a Memphis offer. Smith’s camp claims a different scenario, but nonetheless Tigers boosters and the media are paying careful attention.

Smith also drew negative attention for losing six transfers in the offseason.

However, Smith a is a people person and has been around the game too long to worry about a recruiting war with Arkansas. His friendship with Anderson means more, and he sees the benefit for both schools in reviving it. He knows that together they can make the series relevant.

My only concern is that Smith has work to do to field a team that is the same caliber of Arkansas. The Tigers were 19-13 this year and didn’t make the tournament. It appears that next year will be even worse with the loss of so many players, including hometown brothersvDedric and K.J. Lawson to Kansas. The Lawsons were key cogs for Memphis.

Maybe Smith can right the ship two years from now, but if he doesn’t the initial game of the series may be a rout, something fans of both teams will have to endure. It was great seeing Arkansas revive its old SWC rivalry with Texas at Houston last season, but the Longhorns weren’t very good and that took away some of the luster.

In any case, Smith showed a lot of character opening up the dialogue. I hope he is coaching long enough to coach several of the meetings.

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