Rick Barnes had already put together a brutal non-conference schedule for Tennessee basketball. Now, all of a sudden, the Memphis Tigers’ recent recruiting success has them surging in all preseason rankings, only making things tougher.
The Vols already had five Power Five foes on the slate: The Colorado Buffaloes and Texas Longhorns on the road, the Arizona Wildcats at home, the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Jimmy V Classic and the North Carolina Tar Heels or Purdue Boilermakers in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Two of those teams UT will face are top 25 teams and another is flirting with it.
Texas, UNC and Purdue are in every preseason top 25 ranking, while Texas Tech was in the most recent Way Too Early Top 25 by Jeff Borzello of ESPN back in July. Then there are the Villanova Wildcats, a mid-major program in every preseason top 10 ranking that Tennessee basketball will also face in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. It seemed as if things couldn’t have gotten tougher.
Well, enter Penny Hardaway and Memphis. Rocky Top will face them on a neutral site in Nashville in December. They were already generating buzz as a near top 25 team with the additions of Earl Timberlake, Tyler Harris and Chandler Lawson through the transfer portal.
Now, they have just added two new huge recruits. It started with the addition of five-star center Jalen Duran on Aug. 6, which moved the Tigers up to No. 17 in Gary Parrish’s top 25 and 1, a No. 5 seed in the bracketology by Jerry Palm of CBS Sports and a No. 4 seed in the bracketology by Joe Lunardi of ESPN.
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That was all before what happened this week, when five-star wing Emoni Bates also committed to the Tigers. All of a sudden, Memphis’ class is ranked No. 1 in the nation across the board, moving ahead of Tennessee basketball, as it also has two four-stars and two three-stars.
Simply put, Barnes and the Vols will be put to the test with their recruiting class, which also has two five-stars, two four-stars and two three-stars and is the best class in school history. Memphis only made that tougher. You can point to seven of the 13 games on UT’s non-conference slate that could be marquee games.
That doesn’t even include SEC games. We wrote back in July about the brutal draw the Vols got in league play alone. The Arkansas Razorbacks, Alabama Crimson Tide, Kentucky Wildcats are all ranked ahead of the Vols in most preseason polls. UT plays Arkansas and Kentucky twice and has to play Bama on the road.
Another preseason top 25 team across the board from the SEC is the Auburn Tigers. Add it all together, and 10 of the Vols’ 31 games will be against top 25 teams this year while 13 will be what you consider marquee games, and there will likely be more SEC teams that are threatening throughout the year as well.
Memphis and Tennessee basketball have a great rivalry that should continue. But this year, them being on the schedule is just another major test for the Vols. Barnes and his program aren’t running from competition. That much is clear.