College Basketball Nation: R.C. Johnson

It's not often you'll hear a coach openly say he doesn't want to play an opponent. Usually -- even when coaches are padding their schedules with early season softies -- coaches try to sell their schedules as master documents of their own making. Defiance and competitive solidarity are much more coach-y, and thus much more popular, ways to discuss scheduling in public.

Count Memphis coach Josh Pastner as among those willing to tell it like it is. Speaking with Knoxville-area radio show hosts Josh Ward and Will West on WNML-AM 990 Monday, Pastner was in a candid mood, fully admitting that he -- much like his predecessor, John Calipari -- doesn't like playing in-state rival Tennessee and preferred the game wasn't on the schedule at all. From the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
“I have no desire to play Tennessee,” Pastner told hosts Josh Ward and Will West on WNML-AM 990. “I don’t think it does us any good. I’m just being honest with you. For us, it’s a game that, I don’t know why we play it, but we play it because the athletic director wants me to play it and he’s my boss and what he says goes.”

Reached later, Pastner said he hasn’t hidden from his feelings, which he said are rooted in recruiting and aren’t personal. To Pastner, it’s simple: He doesn’t consider Knoxville a fertile recruiting ground, so why give Tennessee exposure in Memphis, a place where the Vols actively recruit players.

Pastner said he understood why his athletic director, R.C. Johnson, is so in favor of the game: It's great for the fans. Provincial bragging rights are on the line, and the game promotes a rivalry between the schools that can only be good for each team's bottom line. Frankly, when both programs are on the rise -- as they were during the John Calipari and Bruce Pearl years of the recent past -- the fixture is probably good for both schools. It's a big one on the calendar. It garners national attention and exposure. College GameDay's been known to show up from time to time. That can't be a bad thing, right?

But things have changed. Under Pastner, Memphis is ascendant, stockpiling young talent in loaded recruiting classes, another of which arrives on campus this summer. At Tennessee, Pearl's departure and the impending NCAA sanctions have put the Volunteers into what will likely be a protracted rebuilding period. You can understand if Pastner doesn't want to do the Vols any favors just this very moment. As Sean Combs' character in "Get Him To The Greek" would say, Pastner is in the power position. If the game works for both sides, great. If not, maybe it's not as worthwhile as everyone thought.

Still, the Tennessee-Memphis rivalry doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Why? Because Pastner, like all good employees, knows when to sit down, be quiet and let the boss make the final call:
“(Johnson) feels it’s great for the state of Tennessee,” Pastner told the radio station. “A lot of people want it in the state of Tennessee, and so I understand that. … I’m OK with it. Look, my athletic director, I think he’s the best. I mean, the absolute best. If he tells me to do something, I totally believe in chain of command. He’s the boss. If he told me to go play Ole Miss, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi State and anyone else, I would do it, because he’s the boss.”
On Wednesday, Conference USA made a -- oh, how to put this politely -- quirky decision. The C-USA decided to place its 2011 conference tournament in El Paso, Texas.

There are a few issues with this. One is that a conference tournament in El Paso has to take place in UTEP's arena, which, while sufficient for college home games, is probably not a destination arena with the sort of NBA-level amenities you would expect of a conference tournament venue (apparently there's not even an overhead scoreboard). Another is that even by the spread-out standards of the southwest, El Paso is out there, and C-USA has plenty of teams for which the trek to the Mexican border will be more than a little arduous -- it's even 750 miles from in-state schools like Houston and Rice! So it's essentially a plane ride for just about every fan base.

One such fan base is Memphis, which is located more than 1,000 miles away from the new conference tourney destination. And Memphis athletic R.C. Johnson doesn't seem the least bit pleased about it:

"The league has spoken," Johnson said. "I have nothing to add. We have to regroup and look toward the future, I guess."

The source of that quote is a column my Memphis Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins, who played around with Google Maps and came to the conclusion that Memphis needs to get out of Conference USA toot suite:

So I'm not going to pile on El Paso in this column. It probably has its charms. That's more than I can say for the miserable conference that Memphis finds itself in. What self-respecting conference puts its tournament in the middle of nowhere? What conference commissioner allows its championship game to tip off at 9:30 in the morning local time?

[...] Some of us tried to say that years ago, back when they actually held conference tournaments in Memphis. Johnson said that kind of talk was impolite. But what is true now was also true then: This conference is not the Memphis Tigers' friend. The basketball is awful. For years, we've heard about how it's going to get better. But Memphis remains the only team that's worth a spit. Instead of celebrating that, instead of leveraging it, the conference now makes it as hard as it can for Memphis to succeed.

To be fair, Conference USA was slightly better at hoops last season -- UTEP, not Memphis, won the regular season title, the league sent two teams to the NCAA tournament thanks to Houston's upset in the C-USA final, and Memphis and UAB were both bubble teams. But the point stands: Most of the schools in Conference USA simply can't compete with Memphis on the basketball court. If the Big Ten snatches up a handful of teams in its ongoing expansion effort, and Memphis has a chance to ride the conference realignment wave to a spot in a power-six conference -- the Big East? the ACC? -- you can bet the Tigers will take that chance.

The folks in Memphis seem to need a change of scenery. Just not, apparently, in west Texas.

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