ROGERS – Renewing the Arkansas-Memphis basketball rivalry now seems to be a matter of “when” instead of “if.”
After more than a decade of icy relations between the schools, discussions are warming up to resume a home-and-home series as early as the 2018-19 season.
That is largely because Memphis second-year head coach Tubby Smith and Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson have a good relationship, as evidenced by Smith playing in Anderson’s annual charity golf tournament Monday.
“I think Tubby gets it,” Anderson said. “Tubby’s been around a long time and we’re good friends. I just think it’s a great, great game for this area, this part of the country.”
The Razorbacks and Tigers played 12 straight years beginning in the 1991-92 season, but then-Memphis coach John Calipari cancelled the series because Arkansas was no longer a “national program.”
After Calipari left for Kentucky, one of his assistants – Josh Pastner – became the Tigers’ head coach and kept the policy of not playing the Razorbacks.
That is not the case with Smith, who replaced Pastner in April 2016. He has coached against Arkansas with four different schools – Tulsa, Georgia, Kentucky and Texas Tech – and would like to add Memphis to the list.
“I can see why they didn’t (want to play Arkansas),” Smith said at Anderson’s golf tournament. “We have a hotbed of talent there and certainly, I know when Nolan Richardson was here, he did pretty well in recruiting the Memphis area.
“Recruiting has changed so much over the last 10 years, five years. Kids are going to be going where they want to go anyways. It’s a pretty mobile society now. I’m not concerned with that.”
During Richardson’s tenure at Arkansas, the Razorbacks signed nine players from Memphis, including McDonald’s All-Americans Ron Huery and Todd Day.
However, since he left, they’ve signed only two: Anthlon Bell and Mardracus Wade. Recently, Arkansas has instead been able to stock up on in-state talent.
That doesn’t mean the Razorbacks wouldn’t still like to grab a couple of players from across the Mississippi River.
“Memphis is a hotbed for talent and of course, I think our state now is producing players, as well,” Anderson said. “So I think when you’ve got states that border each other, it’s kind of a natural (fit), especially with what has taken place in the past.”
Smith said several ideas have been brought up, including playing games in Little Rock, but both sides would like a true home-and-home.
As a frequent visitor, Smith described Bud Walton Arena as a “fun venue” to coach and play in.
“That’s why kids come to college,” Smith said. “They continue to measure themselves and test themselves against the best and certainly Arkansas is a program that is traditionally and historically good, a very competitive program year in and year out. That’s something we’re trying to restore at Memphis.”
There is plenty of fan support to resume the series. In a poll conducted by Hawgs247 - the Arkansas 247Sports site - last month, 92.3 percent of the respondents said they were in favor of renewing the rivalry.
In addition to the fans and the history between the schools – Arkansas leads the all-time series 11-10 – Anderson said that in today’s game, many of the players know each other from playing summer ball.
“These guys play each other during the AAU season quite a bit,” Anderson said. “We’ve got some kids that go over to Memphis and play some of the Memphis teams.
“So I think it’s an exciting series and I’m looking forward to getting those dates and getting it set in stone… Hopefully it can be a series that continues for a long time.”