Tigers vs. Volunteers used to mean bragging rights within Tennessee. Come Saturday night, this usually inconsequential state rivalry, struts across the national stage.
No. 1 Memphis hosts No. 2 Tennessee - the 38th game between teams ranked Nos. 1 and 2 but only the fifth time the teams are from the same state.
"These 1-2 matchups are usually reserved for Tobacco Road or some place in Indiana or Ohio," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Thursday.
"And the fact that it's in Tennessee is something that I think all high school basketball players and high school coaches and different folks that love basketball in the state of Tennessee are certainly proud of."
Cincinnati and Ohio State played each other twice in the 1960s as No. 1 vs. No. 2, and Duke and North Carolina met twice in the 1990s. Those last two games were Atlantic Coast Conference matchups.
Well, Memphis belongs to the lightly regarded Conference USA, while Tennessee is in the Southeastern Conference. They are playing for the third time in an eight-year deal in basketball, the sport Memphis uses to get Tennessee to play the Tigers in football.
The Tigers (26-0) are putting their perfect record and the nation's longest home-court winning streak at 47 games on the line.
"Them. Us. Everybody in the state. It's an ego game," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "That game has been played up to a level that I can't even begin to tell you."
It's the game Tennessee didn't want right now.
The Vols are trying to win the SEC title outright for the first time in 41 years. After Memphis comes an SEC East showdown with No. 20 Vanderbilt in Nashville followed by a visit from Kentucky and a trip to Florida.
It's the game Memphis needed right now.
Calipari can use it to quiet critics who think his league schedule is too weak when it comes to NCAA tournament seeding.
But he would prefer to keep the Vols, and Pearl, out of Memphis' fertile recruiting territory by playing this game on neutral ground - Nashville, the midpoint between the schools.
This will be the latest in the season these teams have met except for a 1990 NIT game, and credit for the timing goes to ESPN. The network is taking its "College Gameday" program to Memphis and couldn't have gotten luckier with both schools off to their best starts.
Memphis has been the unanimous No. 1 the past three weeks but is enjoying the top ranking for only the second time in school history. Tennessee had never been ranked higher than No. 4 before this season.
"It's a great game for the fans, for the student-athletes and students at both universities," Pearl said.
It's one point on which Calipari and Pearl can agree.
"It's about what's good for the state of Tennessee," Calipari said. "The game at some point does become bigger than me or Bruce and all the institutions."
The rankings bring some spark to the rivalry between Tennessee, the state's oldest college, and Memphis, the school derided by Volunteer fans as Tiger High in part for its start as a teachers' school.
The rivalry's biggest moment to date came in football. Tigers fans still brag about beating Peyton Manning 21-17 in 1996, Tennessee's lone loss in 21 games between the schools. You can bet Manning, who had to call on help to get tickets for Saturday's game, will hear about it again from someone in the crowd.
The Vols also lead 11-7 in basketball. They have won six of the last eight, including 76-58 last season in Knoxville.
Each team has been ranked three times when it faced the other, but they've never before met when both were ranked.
Asked about the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, Rodney Carney, a former Tiger now in the NBA with Philadelphia, had a quick answer.
"Yeah, I never would have thought Tennessee would be No. 2," Carney said.
The Vols were unranked last season when they led by as much as 21 before beating then-No. 16 Memphis 76-58. Tigers guard Chris Douglas-Roberts said there's no animosity from that loss.
"They beat us fair and square," he said.
That's not stopped Memphis from selling T-shirts titled "Cat Chow" with bits of Tennessee's signature orange dribbling down the sides.
Pearl isn't backing off, either.
He met with Vol fans before tipoff in his last trip to Memphis in January 2006. He will do so again Saturday a couple of blocks away from the sold-out FedExForum, where second-row seats were listed at $5,000 apiece Thursday on the Internet.
For all the heat this rivalry has generated, it isn't hot enough to get Pearl to take his inflammatory orange blazer to Memphis.
"What's on the line Saturday has more to do with a good instate rivalry and some bragging rights, and the winner's going to feel real good," Pearl said. "But that pales in comparison to the pressure of trying to do something that's not been done in 41 years, and that's win an SEC championship.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)