On Tuesday night, the Kentucky Wildcats will make their annual journey to Thompson-Boling Arena, and with it comes the renewal of Tennessee's one and only rivalry in men's basketball. Much like football, the Florida game has become important because of the divisional rivalry and the fact that the Gators have gotten very good, very fast - and have the rings to prove it - but when it comes to rivalry and talk of a nemesis, the conversation begins and ends with Kentucky. Through the thick and thin of Tennessee Basketbal - where thick is a recent development - only the Cats stir the history and the emotions to their limits.
I started following Vol Basketball at the beginning of the Wade Houston era - which isn't the best place in the world to start - but even flowing through the Kevin O'Neill days, not only did the home date with Kentucky mean you suddenly cared about basketball, even if just for one night a year, it also meant you got a chance to see some of the best college basketball teams that have ever been assembled. The talent gap between the mid to late 90s Kentucky teams and the Vols was staggering. Under both Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, the Cats would send future NBA stars onto the floor that played a "come fly with me" brand of basketball that the Vols had no answer for. Names like Derek Anderson, Keith Bogans, Tony Delk, Jamal Mashburn, Jamaal Magloire, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer (especially despised by Vol fans), Nazr Mohammed, Scott Padgett, Tayshaun Prince, Wayne Turner, and Antonie Walker dominated Tennessee on a routine basis, with the Cats winning National Championships in 1996 and 1998 and were an overtime against Arizona in 1997 away from a three-peat.
Tennessee scored home upsets over UK in 1990, 1992, and 1993, with two dramatic finishes and a blowout inbetween. Kentucky would continually dominate in Rupp Arena, and on the heels of UT's 78-77 win over #2 Kentucky in February of 93, the two met in the second round of the SEC Tournament, which was held in Lexington in 1993. The Blizzard of 93 hit Knoxville that day, meaning that few and far between knew of the 101-40 revenge beatdown the Cats gave the Vols.
The 71 point spanking was a hint of things to come, as it was the first of 11 straight Kentucky victories over the Vols, including five straight at Thompson-Boling from 1994-1998. In those 11 games, Kentucky won by 71 in the 93 SEC Tournament, 19 in Lexington in 94 before escaping 77-73 in Knoxville the same year, won by 19 in Lexington and 20 in Knoxville in 95, won by 17 in Lexington and then dusted the Vols 90-50 in Knoxville in 96, turned around and won by 34 points in Lexington and then 10 points in Knoxville in 97. Kevin O'Neill did not like playing Kentucky.
I remember the 97 game in Knoxville as being the first time I had actually ever made it through an entire UT-UK game without leaving early. The usual routine had been show up with wholly unrealistic expectations about an upset, then watch us get dunked on for 15-20 minutes inbetween turnovers off the press, then head home. The Vols were actually in the 97 game until the final minutes, and I remember thinking "this must be what Kentucky feels like when they almost beat us in football" as I left the arena, sad we'd loss but elated at the "progress" we'd made. That a 10 point loss felt that great was both a snapshot to Tennessee's futility and Kentucky's success in the mid-90s.
Several details made this rivalry boil for many Vol fans. The personality of Rick Pitino didn't help for starters, but the key factor wasn't just the scoreboard, but the horde of UK fans who annually make the three hour drive from Lexington to Knoxville, who filled the upper deck in the mid-90s and drowned out the home crowd with "C-A-T-S CATS CATS CATS!" It was the only basketball game that felt like a football game, which at this point was the only thing we knew how to do well. When Ron Mercer was decked on a hard screen in one particular game in Knoxville, Vol fans erupted and Kentucky fans were hot. UK, of course, went on to blow out the Vols in style. But it made you so badly want to give them a piece of your mind when they came to Knoxville...but alas, you kept having to wait...
Jerry Green shows up with lots of young talent, and suddenly things get more interesting. The Cats still won by 18 points in Knoxville in 1998, but in his second meeting with UK, Jerry Green's squad almost pulled off an upset in Rupp Arena, falling six points short. This was the first time since 1989 that Kentucky didn't beat Tennessee by double digits at Rupp Arena.
When the 1998-99 basketball season rolled around, the Vols were coming off their first NCAA Tournament bid in forever and were actually ranked 9th in the preseason polls, fielding a starting five of Tony Harris, Brandon Wharton, Vincent Yarbrough, CJ Black and Charles Hathaway with Isaiah Victor, Aaron Green and Torrey Harris coming off the bench in prominent roles. The Vols fell out of the Top 25 after losing the season opener to Arizona at the buzzer, and getting beat by Wally Sczerbiak's Miami (OH) team on the road. Tennessee also got drilled in their SEC opener at Auburn in the Tigers' most recent spurt of good basketball, but then beat LSU by 35 and South Carolina by 29 at home. Everyone knew this team was talented, but everyone also knew how young they were. So it was that we can start chronicling the Tennessee victories over Kentucky in the last few years:
(thanks to bigbluehistory.net for filling in some gaps...)
1999 - Tennessee 47 - #6 Kentucky 46 (Lexington)
A Tuesday night, 9:00 PM ESPN game...as you can see, the score wasn't indicative of the brand of basketball that either team usually played. UK was the defending National Champion, and Tennessee had only won once ever in Rupp Arena (1979). It was ugly basketball from the start - the Vols led 25-21 at halftime with both teams unable to hit water falling out of a boat. In the second half, seized as much as a seven point lead, but Kentucky kept hitting shots in key moments to pull it back. Kentucky led 39-38 before Tony Harris and Brandon Wharton both drained 3s on either side of two Kentucky free throws to put the Vols up 44-41. But back came Kentucky, as they were in the habit of doing, and after a score and a stop, Scott Padgett buried a three to put UK up 46-44 with under 2:00 to play. Back on the other end, Brandon Wharton had a long three as the shot clock expired that was missed, but the Vols grabbed an offensive rebound and fired right back to a now wide open Wharton, who buried this one to put the Vols up 47-46. From there, no one could score - Kentucky had the ball last but failed to get off a good look, and suddenly Tennessee had not only broken UK's 11 game winning streak - they'd done so in the holy of holies, Rupp Arena.
1999 - Tennessee 68 - #13 Kentucky 61 (Knoxville)
The victory at Rupp came eight days after Tennessee's football National Championship. This win in Knoxville was the final piece in the greatest stretch of dominance and excellence in the history of Tennessee athletics. What Florida is enjoying now has got to be sweet, but this stretch comes close. Starting with Peyton Manning's senior season and the 1997 SEC Football Championship, through the Lady Vols winning their third straight National Championship, and doing so by going undefeated in April of 1998, the football Vols responded by winning the National Championship on January 4, 1999. With John Ward retiring, the Vols sent him out in style by beating Kentucky on the home floor for the first time in six years, and capturing the SEC Eastern Division title in the process. The Vols - and their fans - knew that beating UK was possible having just done it weeks before, but now we all wanted to see it with our own eyes. With 23,000+ on hand in Knoxville, the Vols built a halftime lead, watched Kentucky retake the lead in the second half, but finished incredibly strong with inside play from the young Isaiah Victor, who joined Harris and Wharton in double figures. When it was all said and done, fans rushed the court (count me in on that one) and Tennessee cut down the nets as SEC Eastern Division Champions. This is probably the most fun I've ever had at a UT basketball game.
2000 - #7 Tennessee 74 - #18 Kentucky 67 (Knoxville)
Tennessee's best basketball squad since Ernie & Bernie was humbled at Rupp Arena earlier in this season 81-68, but the Vols responded in Knoxville en route to the SEC Championship and a sick 24-5 regular season, which set the tone for a run to the Sweet 16. And on some other day, maybe in a couple weeks, it's worth it to go back and chronicle the two UT-Florida games from this year, with the Vols winning in double overtime in Gainesville and in one overtime in Knoxville. Anyway, Kentucky started the game on a 6-0 run and then watched Tennessee reel off a 27-9 run that ranks as one of the most enjoyable ten minutes of basketball I've ever seen. It got more fun in the second half, as the words "Tennessee is blowing out Kentucky" were uttered for the first and only time in my entire life. The Vols built as much as a 16 point lead before Kentucky fought back, putting a scare in the Vols by cutting it to five with over a minute to play. But Tennessee made their free throws and secured the victory 74-67.
(For the true Vol fan who follows both football and basketball, there was nothing more painful than the 2001 basketball season. Not the 2005 football season, not anything related to Wade Houston, nothing. In 2001, the Vols started the season ranked #9, rose as high as #4 in the midst of a 16-1 start that included a blowout win at Syracuse and a spanking of Alabama at home to open the SEC slate 3-0. Then the Vols got too big for their britches and went to unranked Kentucky and lost by 10. By the time the Cats returned to Knoxville, the Vols had lost five of seven and fallen to #15 in the polls, but the growing sentiment was "we just need to get back home to win", which set up the infamous "NOT IN OUR HOUSE" three game homestand, where the t-shirts given to the student section were worthless in about two hours, as the Vols lost to Kentucky by eight, Florida by six, and Georgia by an inexplicable 12. Ron Slay at this point was quoted as saying something like "It's like we're just out there messing around and then we look up with five minutes left and we're losing and it's like #%!#" Tennessee ended up losing five straight and seven of nine, needing to put together four straight wins over lesser opponents at seasons' end to squeak into the dance, where they were eliminated in the first round and Jerry Green had gone from savior to outcast in record time.)
That was 2001. Onward to Buzz Peterson and...
2002 - Tennessee 76 - #7 Kentucky 74 (OT) (Knoxville)
Half the roster graduated or left the program, and anyone who had high expectations based on four straight trips to the NCAA Tournament was rudely awakened by a 1-2 trip to the Great Alaska Shootout. This team was snakebitten the likes of which I've never seen - some say that if not for this incredible stretch of last-second losses, Jon Higgins' surprise dismissal and the subsequent snub by the NCAA Tournament committee the following year, Buzz Peterson would've gotten one more year following 2005. Which would mean no Bruce Pearl. I'm just saying.
The Vols lost three straight games on last second three pointers against stiff competition in Louisville, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Then they lost to Florida at home in overtime, lost to Georgia by three and Mississippi State by one in overtime. But the Vols rebounded to win five of six, including a home win over #8 Syracuse, when Kentucky came calling.
Kentucky started out of the gate hot, opening a 13 point lead before the Vols battled back. The game, in fact, should've never gone to overtime, but when UK hit back to back 3s at the close of regulation to send it there, the "here we go again" feeling was tangible. But in the extra frame, the Vols came up huge, and Marcus Haislip tipped in his own miss to put the Vols ahead 76-74, and Tayshaun Prince misfired, giving the Vols the win. Tennessee was a heartbeat away from winning in Lexington as well, but UT blew a big lead and UK held on 64-61.
Then, we go back to heartbreak and blowouts. In 2003, the Cats won 74-71 in Knoxville and blew out the Vols in Lexington. In 2004, the Cats used a miracle to get the game to overtime and then won it 69-68 before going old school in a 32 point beatdown in Rupp. In 2005, the Vols regressed: 22 point loss in Knoxville, 12 point loss in Lexington, 14 point loss in the SEC Tournament. Eight straight Kentucky wins. Buzz Peterson, you're fired.
2006 - #11 Tennessee 75 - Kentucky 67 (Lexington)
Enter Bruce Pearl and Chris Lofton. Lofton went to Lexington as the Vols were surging, but many were still unsure that this story wasn't simply too good to be true. The result? 31 points from Lofton, including 7 3s. Tennessee made the stops it had to make, hit the free throws they needed, and won for only the third time ever in Rupp Arena.
The return match in Knoxville was one of the tougher pills to swallow in recent memory, with Ray Mears and John Ward in attendance and the crowd all dolled up in checkerboard splendor, the Vols opened a can on Kentucky in the first half, and then turned Rajon Rondo into a draft pick in the second half when they let Kentucky (and mostly Rondo) shoot around 80% in the second half. CJ Watson's three at the buzzer rimmed out, and Kentucky stole the show from the Vols. The matchup earlier this season in Lexington - sans Lofton - went from a Tennessee lead at halftime to a 19 point Kentucky win.
Which brings us to today. Lofton is back and the Vols have won two straight, improving the resume to 17-8, 5-5 in the SEC. Kentucky is ever dangerous, having just stood toe to toe with Florida despite shooting 3 of 22 from 3 point range and missing nine free throws on the home rims. However, if Tennessee wins on Tuesday night, they're suddenly just one game back from second place in the SEC East and the coveted first round bye in the SEC Tournament. Florida won't be caught in the East, and neither will Kentucky if they beat the Vols.
Some of Buzz Peterson's famous last words were that the Kentucky game was special, but the only way to make it a true rivalry was to beat them. Bruce fired the first shot last year, and Kentucky answered in Knoxville. Now, with Lofton back, the Vols and Cats stand poised to play another game of conference and national importance. And it shouldn't be any other way.
People talk about Florida and the hatred that exists there in both sports, and they're right. But in football, there's something about coming out of the entrance ramp and seeing the field for the first time on the Third Saturday in October, where the mix of orange and crimson in the stands and on the field reminds you of all the reasons why this is right.
In basketball, there's something about looking around the arena and still seeing shades of blue here and there - though Bruce Pearl has stepped up the defensive efforts on the home front, and we'll be painting the town orange on Tuesday night in an effort to silence the Cat faithful. I'll be making the first ever road trip from Virginia for basketball, because there's something about seeing Tubby Smith and that certain shade of blue on those uniforms. And there's something about Chris Lofton lining it up against these guys. And I still have my memories of watching Ron Mercer dunk on us and hearing those same Kentucky fans who say "wait til basketball season" about two minutes into every one of the last 24 football meetings roar just above me from my season tickets on the second row of the upper deck, and I still want the opportunity to turn around and give them a piece of my mind when the scoreboard has a chance to reflect it. And Bruce Pearl has given us that chance again - what Jerry Green maintained for two seasons, Pearl has a chance to rekindle. Green got lucky with a talented group of players for two seasons. Pearl and the Vols now have a chance to stand toe to toe with Kentucky and hold their own, punch for punch. And there's no one you'd rather hit in the mouth than Kentucky.
The Kentucky game is special, and it's unique. It's all we've got when it comes to true rivalry in basketball. No one has beaten UK more than UT. And five years in Knoxville is long enough.