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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nashville site just fine with Calipari, Pearl prefers to keep home-and-home dates

Nashville site just fine with Calipari
Pearl prefers to keep home-and-home dates
By Dan Wolken
Saturday, December 15, 2007

NASHVILLE -- Beyond the occasional SEC or NCAA Tournament, the Sommet Center has hosted some spectacularly disappointing college basketball events during its 11 years of existence.

As recently as last December, the appetite for hoops was so minuscule that the University of Tennessee could draw only 8,118 fans for a game against nationally ranked Oklahoma State. And that was the biggest crowd ever to see a regular-season game in that building.

But tonight's Sun Belt Classic, which begins with No. 2 Memphis playing Middle Tennessee and concludes with No.12 Tennessee taking on Western Kentucky, is sold out.

The sudden enthusiasm for this event brings up a natural question: Would the game between Memphis and Tennessee be better suited as an annual showcase in Nashville, or should the programs continue to play on a home-and-home basis, as their contract calls for?

Naturally, the involved parties disagree on the answer.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said Friday he'd prefer to maintain the current agreement, which includes a Feb. 23 game at FedExForum, with the Tigers returning to Knoxville next season.

Tigers coach John Calipari, however, hopes tonight's event will help build momentum toward a "Governor's Cup" that would be played every year at the Sommet Center and would include a matchup between two area mid-major programs followed by a Memphis-Tennessee clash.

"We've both got great programs going," Calipari said. "Let's play here. It's the right thing to do. Why wouldn't you do it? It's great for the system and great for our school because we get to play in Nashville. All the money in this state is here. It gives us a chance to play in front of legislators, to project what we are, to say, 'Hey, Memphis is something special.' It's what we used to do at UMass. We used to play in Worcester, Springfield, Boston. We took the team to them."

In past years, Calipari has openly discussed his desire to drop Tennessee off the schedule. That issue, however, has lost steam since Pearl arrived in Knoxville and elevated the Vols to a national contender. Even Calipari would have to acknowledge that Memphis' victory over Tennessee in 2006 helped the Tigers earn a No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And last season, the Tigers did not play a better team in the regular season than Tennessee, which won, 76-58, in Knoxville.

With both programs now strong, Calipari believes a match-up in Nashville would not only be good for basketball fans in Middle Tennessee but would also prepare both teams for neutral-site NCAA Tournament games.

Though Pearl said he'll continue to bring the Vols to Nashville every year for a nonconference game, he argued that the Memphis series belongs in each school's home arena.

"Last year our fans got to see Kevin Durant in Knoxville, and last year our fans got to see John Calipari and his great team in Knoxville," Pearl said. "So I just think that our fans deserve it.

"And the other thing is, we do have a great following in the western part of the state. Tennessee's medical school is in Memphis; that's where our doctors are trained. I think it has a lot of advantages, and certainly for recruiting it's nice to be able to get out there. We play Ole Miss 45 minutes down the road, but it's still good to be right there in Memphis."

Certainly, there are territorial issues in play. Pearl and his staff have practically taken up residence in Memphis, trying to remain in touch with top basketball players in the city's prep ranks.

Tennessee poured major resources into the recruitment of St. George's guard Elliot Williams, who eventually chose Duke, and the stakes will continue to go up as Memphis and UT wage recruiting battles for elite players such as Briarcrest junior Leslie McDonald and White Station sophomore Joe Jackson.

Though Pearl's constant presence in Memphis has made Tennessee more visible in that regard, are the Tigers helping the Vols recruit in Memphis by playing them at FedExForum?

It's possible. But beyond trying to protect his recruiting backyard, Calipari believes a game in Nashville would be financially beneficial to both programs. Instead of getting the revenue from a home game once every other year, Calipari thinks they could haul in big dollars every year.

"When the season ends, we'll go over and say, 'Hey, let's look at this financially because for both programs it doubles the money,'" Calipari said. "Why would you say no? If you're worried about your fans, they can come here. It's three hours away."

-- Dan Wolken: 529-2365

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