By Steve Williams
In a way, Tennessee’s post-season basketball season has already begun.
The March Madness for the Vols started after back-to-back road losses at Auburn and Arkansas in February. At that point, getting invited to the Big Dance seemed out of the question and even a trip to the NIT loomed doubtful.
But with their backs against the proverbial wall, the Vols turned back Florida in Knoxville and became only the sixth UT team ever to beat Kentucky at Rupp Arena last week.
All of a sudden, Tennessee was looking for a NCAA bubble to land on and the NIT was a lock. Rick Barnes and his never-say-die Vols preferred the former as they prepared for this past Saturday’s rematch with Auburn at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Some were saying a win over Pearl’s Plainsmen and two wins in the SEC tournament might get UT on the dance floor.
If that happens, great. If not, there’s always the last chance: Win the Southeastern Conference tournament and claim the automatic bid to the NCAA tourney.
Such strange and unexpected things have happened before.
Please, follow me down Memory Lane.
In 1979, the SEC basketball tournament was renewed with the winner receiving the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA. Over the past 41 seasons, five lower seeded teams have won four games in the tourney to crash the NCAA party, including Auburn (1985 and 2019). UT fans, by the way, remember all too well the Tigers doing it last year.
Arkansas became the first team since the league expanded to 14 teams in 1992 to win the conference tournament by playing all four days. Others to claim NCAA berths that way were Georgia (2008) and Mississipi State (2009).
The 2008 SEC tourney was the oddest of all, as a tornado struck the Atlanta area, damaging the Georgia Dome during overtime of Game 7 between Mississippi State and Alabama. After a 64-minute delay, State and Bama finished their game, but the last quarterfinal game of the day, between Georgia and Kentucky, was postponed until the next day, and the remaining four games of the tournament were moved to Georgia Tech.
The atmosphere at Tech was strange. Only credentialed individuals were allowed to attend, including players’ families, bands, cheerleaders and media. No other spectators were allowed in the building.
Georgia came into the 2008 tourney with a 13-16 overall record and a 4-12 conference mark, but won the tournament and became known as the “Dream Dawgs.”
That season alone should tell us the Vols still have a chance to go dancing.