The Memphis Tigers and Louisville Cardinals have played each other on the basketball court 85 times. (The only other program Memphis has faced as many as 70 times is Southern Miss, with 86 games in the books.) These teams played each other every season from 1967-68 to 1990-91, then 11 more — as Conference USA members — from 1994-95 to 2004-05. Which makes it a sin that six full seasons have passed without a Tiger-Cardinal blood match. That ends this Saturday when the Tigers take the floor at Louisville as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Shootout. If you have holiday shopping to do, get in your car at 3:00 Saturday afternoon. Traffic will be light.
Tigers-Cardinals may not be an “ancient” rivalry, but it’s a hardwood feud that knows few equal in legacy. (The teams first played on January 6, 1949, a 72-53 Cardinal win at Memorial Gym.) I spent my high school winters playing basketball in frigid Vermont, and there were three rivalries that captured the attention of my roundball buddies: Syracuse/Georgetown, North Carolina/Duke, and Louisville/Memphis State. Cable television was limited and ESPN hadn’t begun airing five and six games a day. But the exploits of Keith Lee and Milt Wagner mattered to teenagers who turned very little of their attention south of the Mason-Dixon Line. (For the record, the Tigers won seven of 11 games between 1983-84 and 1986-87 while I was suiting up for the Northfield Marauders. The Cardinals own an overall lead in the series, 51-34.)
These are teams that played each other three times in a season 13 times, which means few Metro Conference tournaments were held without the marquee matchup of Memphis-Louisville. The Tigers beat the Cardinals for the Metro tourney title in 1982 and ’87, and Louisville beat Memphis for the title in 1986 and ’88. Dana Kirk vs. Denny Crum. Elliot Perry vs. Pervis Ellison. John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino.
And how about Anthony Rice vs. Francisco Garcia? The 2005 C-USA tournament championship at FedExForum remains the best college basketball game I’ve seen live at an arena. During one 60-second stretch late in the first half, the teams traded the lead on four consecutive possessions, each field goal a three-pointer. Riveting.
That game will forever be remembered, of course, for the three free throws Darius Washington had after time had expired with the Tigers down two points. Had Washington made all three, the Tigers would have earned an unlikely — undeserved, really — NCAA tournament berth. He made the first, winked at coach John Calipari, and then missed the next two. Washington had to be helped from the floor by Calipari and teammates after collapsing in defeat.
More tears would surely have fallen that afternoon six years ago if Tiger fans knew it would be this long before the only rivalry that really matters to the Memphis program was resumed. Memphis has played SMU ten times since last facing Louisville. UCF and UTEP have been annual foes since the 2005-06 season. The Tigers faced Gonzaga, for Pete’s sake, six straight seasons . . . without Louisville on the schedule. This is a town that loves its ’rasslin’ and relishes a good “bad guy.” Replacing Louisville on the Tiger schedule with Gonzaga is like removing the Mongolian Stomper from a wrestling card in favor of Cyndi Lauper.
Sports are at their best when longtime rivals clash. Ali-Frazier. Nicklaus-Player. Bird-Magic. There’s a reason you can’t avoid Yankees-Red Sox during the summer if you own a television. These are the games that cause divorces, end friendships, stir the foulest language from the depths of a fan’s cheering soul. They’re games in which money, rankings, and star power don’t matter. Only the final score and bragging rights.
Says Tiger coach Josh Pastner, “Since I got this job two years ago, our fans have talked to me on numerous occasions about the Memphis-Louisville rivalry, and how much they want to renew the series. This is a great rivalry not only for the schools and their fans, but it’s also one of college basketball’s top rivalries.”
We’re in the final days of a six-year drought; the longest Tiger (or Cardinal) fans should have to suffer. So get your sleep, take your vitamins, and hide anything red in your living room (including, yes, all images of Santa Claus). Memphis and Louisville are playing this Saturday. Nothing else matters.