Don DeVoe, a three-time SEC Coach of the Year who earned six NCAA Tournament bids in his 11-year stint (1979-89) at the Vol helm, says being well rested is just as important as being well prepared in big-game situations.
"The game on Saturday is going to be the easiest one all year for Bruce Pearl to prepare for," DeVoe said. "I always felt our Kentucky games were the easiest ones for me to prepare for.
"The one thing I always wanted to make sure of going into a Kentucky game was that my team was rested. The players have all of that energy, so I never wanted them to be worn down physically (by over-preparing). We would have the lightest practice possible a day or two before facing Kentucky. I think rest is going to really be important in this (UT-Memphis) game, too."
Tennessee is 24-2 and ranked No. 2 nationally. Memphis has a better record (26-0), a better ranking (No. 1) AND the home-court advantage. DeVoe believes these factors combine to give the Vols an excellent opportunity to win.
"I think there's always more pressure on the home team in big ball games – to hold serve on your home turf," he said. "Tennessee has nothing to lose. If they go in there and lose, hey, they lose to the No. 1 team in the country. Not many people are expecting them to win."
DeVoe, who attended Tennessee's 89-70 defeat of Auburn Wednesday night, believes the Vols are a very relaxed, confident team that will handle Saturday's big-game atmosphere with relative ease.
"I think this team is loose to begin with," he said. "One of the things they do that really impresses me is they really share the ball. They make the extra pass time and again. There are guys on this team who are really great passers. And I think Tyler Smith is just phenomenal. You can throw the ball anywhere around him and he can go and catch it. He's really an amazing player."
DeVoe is too modest to say it but he is a major reason Tennessee and Memphis will be playing Saturday night. The teams had met just once prior to 1988, when he helped convince the Tigers to play his Vols in Knoxville.
"They came over here the first time to play in the Volunteer Classic," the former UT coach recalled. "We set it up to be a national TV game, so it really wasn't a tournament format. It was more like a double-header played on successive nights. I can't even remember who we played on the first night (Miami of Ohio) but we played Memphis on the second night and won (76-74)
"We started playing Memphis my last year here, and I'm glad to see Tennessee and Memphis continue to play. I always thought it was important to play Memphis."
Pearl thinks so, too, largely because the Bluff City produces several top-notch college prospects each year.
"It's maybe a more important game for Tennessee because of all the recruiting implications," DeVoe noted. "Every coach I've known here struggles to get the great players from Memphis to come to Tennessee. If Tennessee can continue to win against Memphis, that helps a lot."
DeVoe never imagined when his '88 team beat Memphis 76-74 that the teams would be meeting two decades later with the No. 1 national ranking at stake. He seems as excited by the prospect as any diehard fan.
"Oh, wow! I think it's just a classic game," he said. "You've got two teams from opposite ends of the state, either trying to stay No. 1 or move up to No. 1.
"It's a beautiful event."