Barnes Discusses Memphis Rivalry, Respect for Hardaway Ahead of Matchup with 13th-Ranked Tigers

Cory Sanning

Tennessee coach Rick Barnes and Memphis coach Penny Hardaway did not get off on the right foot last season.

At least, that's how it's been perceived from the outside. 

As Barnes and the 19th-ranked Vols (7-1) prepare to host the Tigers (8-1) on Saturday, however, the veteran coach discussed the profound amount of respect he has for Hardway and the program he is building at Memphis. 

"He's got a lot of young players that are very talented and I think he's done a great job coaching those guys," Barnes said. "Because it's not easy when you have to start with as many young players as he's had."

Of the 14 players on the Tigers' roster, half of them are true freshman, with Jayden Hardaway earning a redshirt during his true freshman season last year. 

The team will also be still be without center James Wiseman, who is currently serving a 12-game suspension. 

Despite that, Memphis has rattled off eight victories in its first nine games, their lone loss of the season coming in a neutral site matchup against Oregon. Barnes feels that is a testament to Hardaway's ability to galvanize his troops, praising his team's ability to cause havoc on the defensive end. 

"He's done a great job, he really has," Barnes said. "They're a group of guys that play hard, they're going to make you handle the ball and they do a lot of good things."

Barnes also credited Hardaway's motivational tactics, something that the former NBA All-Star has been known for since his time with the Orlando Magic. 

"If you look at their schedule and their wins, it tells you that he's done a great job with them."

While Barnes and the Vols have their sights focused on the task-at-hand, Barnes inevitably turned to the "elephant" in the room: his relationship with Hardaway.

When Tennessee knocked off the Tigers in Memphis back in December, the two coaches exchanged a brief, callous postgame handshake before trading shots at each other through the media. 

Barnes said that while he's gotten to know Hardaway from being in the Memphis area on recruiting trips, the two have not spoken since. 

That may sound concerning to some, but Barnes says that it is not atypical to go long periods without communication between opposing coaches. 

"We haven't talked, but that's not unusual,"Barnes said. "I did not bump into Penny at any point in time on the road to where we'd have the chance to talk or anything."

Barnes and Hardaway may have traded jabs following the Vols' 102-92 win over the Tigers, but heartfelt respect still emulates between the two coaches, at least from Tennessee's end. 

Not known as an individual to negatively comment on another program, Barnes very well may have stepped outside of his comfort zone when he responded to Hardaway's "balled-up fists" accusations, but it's clear that he has moved on from the ordeal.

When asked about it on Wednesday, Barnes feels that the entire situation was overblown.

"I just think that people have tried to make something out of nothing," Barnes said. "I've got great respect for what he has done and I know what he means to Memphis and the program he's built there."

The distance between Memphis and Knoxville spans nearly 395 miles, so although they coach within the same state, Barnes says that he and Hardaway do not run into each other much, if at all. 

That hasn't stopped Barnes from admiring Hardaway's work ethic and determination, both of which he feels are instrumental assets to his team. 

"He's done a great job recruiting and does a great job coaching his guys," Barnes said. "It's not like we cross paths a lot, because we don't."

Tennessee will host Memphis on Saturday, Dec. 14 at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for 3:00 p.m. ET on ESPN. 

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