Live from Knoxville, en route to Atlanta for what I hope is a long stay for the weekend...
Last year a friend of mine and I bought tickets to the SEC Tournament on ebay for slightly higher than face value. The 06 tournament was in Nashville, and their smaller venue, the Gaylord Entertainment Center. As a result, ticket prices were approaching astronomical rates on ebay, and I thought we got a pretty good deal for seats in the upper level, relatively speaking.
The tournament operates in six sessions - two on Thursday, two on Friday, the semifinals on Saturday and the championship game on Sunday, and you get a ticket to each session (one ticket for two games on Thursday/Friday sessions). The Vols had a first round bye as Eastern Division champions in 2006, and played in the opening game on Friday morning. So we left Knoxville around 8:00 AM on Friday morning, five hours before the Vols were set to face "lowly" South Carolina, heavily intoxictaed with Bruce Pearl's kool-aid and locked in for a long weekend.
The Vols played the opening game on Friday. They lost by eight points.
Instantly, it becomes "this sucks, let's go home." No long weekend. No "let's watch Florida and LSU and Kentucky." No good stories. No great return on our investment, financially or otherwise. This was easily the most expensive, least satisfying sports related trip I've ever been on.
So this year, the Vols are playing on Thursday, and they're playing in the final game (approx. 9:45 PM, but it'll actually be after 10:00 before the tip if history holds). And so you can bet the house that I'll be in my seat at 1:00 tomorrow, locked in to Kentucky and Alabama. Because I'm getting something for my money this year, should the Vols flame out.
I spent less than six hours in this environment last year due to the Vols' early exit, but you could tell that the SEC Tournament had great potential. You just don't see fans from all 12 schools in one place at one time, with large representation from Kentucky (by far the leader), Tennessee, Florida, Alabama and Arkansas. With the tournament in Atlanta, I'm sure Georgia will bring folks over from Athens this year. So hopefully, I've have something more to say on this after the weekend. Because I'm still drinking Bruce Pearl's kool-aid.
That said, what will it take for Tennessee to make a good showing in Atlanta?
Vols in the SEC Tournament History
When the SEC Tournament was reinstated in 1979, Tennessee won it by beating Kentucky in the finals. Since then, the trophy case is empty.
The real kicker comes in the modern era, when the SEC expanded to 12 teams beginning in 1992. The previous season, with Wade Houston at the helm and Allan Houston on the floor, the Vols went 9-21 in the regular season, 3-15 in the SEC. Then the Vols went to Nashville for the SEC Tournament, and magic started happening. The Vols beat Ole Miss in the first round 94-85. In the second round, playing #18 Mississippi State, who had beaten the Vols by 27 points a month earlier, Tennessee woke up. The Vols pounded MSU 87-70. Which was a nice story, but no one figured it would last. In the semifinals against Georiga - who had beaten the Vols by 21 points earlier in the season - Tennessee rolled, 85-65. Suddenly, this team was one win away from making the NCAA Tournament with a 9-21 regular season record. The dream died hard in the second half against #24 Alabama in the finals, as the Vols eventually fell 88-69. But those four days in Nashville were magic - I remember laying on my parents' couch and crying when we lost to Alabama.
That was 1991. That was the last time the Vols have played on Saturday in the SEC Tournament.
It's true. Tennessee has the worst record in the SEC Tournament since the league expanded to 12 teams. All 11 other teams have made at least one trip to the Saturday semifinals. But not the Vols.
And it's not that we haven't had our chances. In the 1996 Tournament, with the Vols still feeling the negative effects of the Wade Houston era, Tennessee needed one win to lock up a bid to the NIT Tournament. And Steve Hamer turned in a monster performance as the Vols beat Alabama 77-65. Believe it or not, that was a really big deal at the time. Tennessee did lose the following round, and then lost a heartbreaker to College of Charleston in the opening round of the NIT.
By the way, I'm pretty sure I saw Steve Hamer walk past me to his seats at the Florida game in Knoxville. My season tickets are on the second row of the upper deck. Hamer was sitting something like 20 rows behind me. It's Steve Hamer. C'mon Bruce, hook the man up!
In Jerry Green's first season in 1998, the Vols got the all-important 20th win by beating LSU in the opening round of the SEC Tournament, which locked up an NCAA bid. The Vols then lost one of the most entertaining games I've ever seen, 102-96 to #17 Arkansas in the second round, before losing another heartbreaker to Illinois State in the opening round of the dance. But again, it may not seem like it now, but at the time that was a very big deal.
The bad news starts in 1999, as the Vols began to be good enough to think about winning the SEC Tournament. At 20-7 and ranked #18, winners of six straight including Florida and Kentucky to win the Eastern Division Championship, the Vols headed to Atlanta with a first round bye...and then got bounced by Mississippi State 62-56. This was stunning, only to be topped a week later by the infamous 81-51 loss to SW Missouri State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. This was John Ward's final broadcast, which makes me sick.
The following year, back in Atlanta, the Vols were SEC Champions (in a four-way tie) and 24-5, ranked #6. The Vols were thinking about a number one seed. Read that again. This was Tennessee's most talented team since Ernie & Bernie. East Champions for the second straight year, they again get the Thursday bye, and this time it's South Carolina...and down we go again, 75-68. The Vols went from a 1 or 2 seed to a 4, but still made it to the Sweet 16 before losing to North Carolina. But oh, what could've been...
The 2001 season tailspun from 16-1 and ranked #4 to 18-9 and unranked, before the Vols won three straight to close the regular season. They almost blew something like a 30 point lead over Auburn in the first round of the SEC Tournament before winning, then got it handed to them by Ole Miss 86-73 in the second round. Jerry Green's final game would be a first round loss to UNC-Charlotte in the NCAAs.
Buzz Peterson's snakebitten 2002 team needed two wins in the SEC Tournament to qualify for the NIT. They got the first one over Arkansas 68-61, then lost to a very good #8 Alabama team 91-72. His 2003 team got screwed more in one week than any Tennessee team of any sport in history. The Vols finished the regular season 17-10, 9-7 in the SEC. Only one team in history had missed the Dance with a 9-7 SEC record. The Vols figured an easy win in the first round of the SEC Tournament would be the final padding on the resume.
Then Georgia got disqualified from the entire tournament, thanks to Jim Harrick, and instead of playing a pasty West team in the first round, the Vols got Georgia's automatic bye. Now, the one win they needed in the SEC Tournament would be in the form of the more imposing Auburn. Then Jon Higgins was kicked off the team for academic reasons. The Vols lost to Auburn, finished 17-11, and got left out of the NCAA Tournament, while 7-9 Alabama got in. I was driving to Myrtle Beach for spring break during Selection Sunday, and remember being on the phone with my friend, incredulous that we were left out...while stuck in Darlington post-race traffic.
Already locked into the NIT in 2004, the Vols ran into a buzzsaw in Alabama in the first round and were routed 84-49. This is when Ron Grizzard hit six threes in the first half, a couple of them while falling down that Lofton would've been proud of. I mean, what are you supposed to do about that?
Buzz Peterson's last stand in 2005 included a first round victory over Arkansas in very convincing fashion, before falling to #4 Kentucky 76-62. All of that "Is Buzz already fired? Will winning the SEC Tournament save him?" (yes. no.) talk was moot.
So for all the good that Bruce Pearl has done in Knoxville...he couldn't shake this one off. As already explained at the start of this one, the Vols walked into Nashville as the #1 seed in 2006...and walked right back out, 79-71 to South Carolina.
This is the biggest black mark when it comes to records and history and tradition in the entire Tennessee athletic department. I challenge you to find something that even comes close to our futility in the SEC Tournament. Once again - haven't won it since 1979, haven't made it to the semifinals since 1991, have won the Eastern Division three times and have been upset on Friday three times.
At least we won't have to worry about that one this year.
And then, there's this...
The Curse of the Georgia Dome
As we've just seen, it's not that we have a rosy SEC Tournament history anyway. But the Vols are 3-7 in the Georgia Dome in basketball. The monumental upset losses to Mississippi State and South Carolina in 99/00? Georgia Dome. Ron Grizzard's six threes? Georgia Dome. Buzz Peterson's last game? Georgia Dome.
The football team, the savior of the athletic department? Conspiracy theorists, unite.
The Vol football team has played six games in the Georgia Dome. They won the first two - the SEC Championships in 1997 and 1998. In 1997, the Vols turned the ball over six times and still won, 30-29 over Auburn. In 1998, Tennessee forgot how to play offense and gave up touchdowns on a punt return and an INT return. Still won, because 1998 cancels out all bad vibes, 24-14 over Mississppi State. 2-0, but two painfully bad performances.
In 2001, the #1 most heartbreaking game in UT football history, by far, don't argue - the 31-20 SEC Championship loss to LSU with a spot in the National Championship Game on the line. I can't bear to write anymore about this.
And then there are the Peach Bowls. Two embarassing performances, be it getting blown out by Maryland in 2002, or thinking that we're Florida State or Miami and trying to fight everyone on Clemson's team in 2003. Both losses, the first the punctuation mark on an 8-5 2002 season, the second a missed opportunity to finish in the top five (the Vols, for the forgetful, were ranked #6 going into that Clemson game).
The most recent trip, the 2004 SEC Championship Game, was what some people will call a "good loss", but we don't use that term in Knoxville. Undefeated Auburn beat the Vols 38-28, in a game that Tennessee did rally and tie 21-21 in the third quarter. But a loss is a loss is a loss.
Six games, two wins, zero good performances. In fact, the closest thing to a good performance in the Georgia Dome probably is the 2004 game that we lost. Tennessee does not play well in the Georgia Dome. Period.
So we're hoping to change that.
What it will take this weekend...
Let's start with a less-than-favorable matchup against what seems to be a wide awake and fully alert LSU team, who beat Florida and won two of three to close the season. Big Baby is a huge matchup problem for the Vols, and he's probably pissed about his five point effort in Knoxville. Chris Lofton struggles against Garrett Temple more than anyone else in the SEC. Tennessee has created tremendous turnovers against LSU in each of the last two seasons - it'll take a similar effort to give the Vols the edge this weekend. LSU is going to believe that they're talented enough to go 4-0 this weekend and get back in the NCAA Tournament. Bruce Pearl said earlier this week that LSU wouldn't want it more than the Vols. He needs to be right.
If Tennessee gets past this dangerous opening round game, they'll get a more favorable matchup - on paper - with Ole Miss on Friday night. Minus Chris Lofton, the Rebels turned a ten point halftime hole into a rout earlier this season in Oxford. Ole Miss is a feel good story who needs at least one win to think about going dancing. This would be an exciting game to watch, methinks. But again, the Vols will be the better team on Thursday and Friday.
If history falls apart and the Vols do make it to Saturday, you can pencil in the Florida Gators, and the weekend was instantly worth my money. A chance to break the 1-1 season tie would be on the line, and with the Vols rising rapidly with bracketologists - either a 4 or 5 seed right now depending on who you ask, and I still think it can go higher since Tennessee has a higher RPI right now (7) than they did last season, with more quality wins (strength of schedule: 4)...beating Florida would mean we're talking about a 2 or a 3 instead of a 4 or a 5. Florida is still thinking #1 seed. This...this would be fun.
And obviously, if it got to Sunday...well, you don't need any help figuring out why that would be awesome too.
So, what's it going to be? Another short weekend of futility, and another black mark on the program? Or will Bruce Pearl break through and carry the Vols into Saturday/Sunday?
We said it with football, we said it with basketball, we'll say it now: the SEC is good enough, 1 to 12, for anyone to win it this weekend, and for Tennessee to lose to LSU on Thursday or Ole Miss on Friday, or anywhere else.
But Tennessee is good enough to win the whole thing.