Vol basketball notebook

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Saturday’s 60-49 loss to South Carolina at Thompson-Boling Arena closed Tennessee’s regular season with a 2-7 record in SEC home games and raised an interesting question:

When was the last time the Volunteers posted a worse SEC record at home?

You have to go back 53 years to 1961-62. John Sines was the coach. Tennessee still played its games in 7,000-seat Armory Fieldhouse. Georgia Tech and Tulane were still members of the SEC. The Vols’ leading scorer was a guy named Tommy Wilson at 14.9 points per game. Donnie Tyndall would not be born for another eight years.

Sines’ 1961-62 team went 1-6 in conference home games en route to a 2-12 SEC record and a 4-19 overall record that cost him his job. After winning their SEC home opener 85-83 against Vanderbilt, the Vols lost to LSU (61-73), Kentucky (82-95), Georgia Tech (65-66), Mississippi State (67-91), Ole Miss (81-98) and Tulane (81-83).

Tennessee posted some bad SEC home records between 1962 and 2015, of course. Here’s a recap:

Wade Houston’s 1990-91 Vols went 2-7 in SEC home games en route to a 3-15 league record and a 12-22 overall mark.

Houston’s 1993-94 team went 2-6 in SEC home games on its way to a 2-14 conference mark and a 5-22 overall record.

Kevin O’Neill’s 1994-95 Vols posted a 2-6 record in SEC home games en route to a 4-12 league mark and an 11-16 overall record.

HISTORY GIVES VOLS A CHANCE

Based on the team’s 15-15 overall record and 7-11 SEC mark, Tennessee’s younger fans probably figure the Vols have no chance to contend for the SEC Tournament title later this week in Nashville.

Tennessee’s older fans, however, know better.

Veteran Vol-watchers no doubt remember 1991, when a Big Orange squad coached by Wade Houston limped into the SEC tourney with a woeful 9-21 overall record, a putrid 3-15 SEC mark and 11 losses in the previous 12 games. No one took the Vols seriously, including their opponents. They expected to beat Tennessee just by showing up.

That proved to be a faulty assumption.

With the crowd on their side and no pressure on their shoulders, the ’91 Vols were a relaxed bunch when they took the floor for their tourney opener against an Ole Miss team that had beaten them eight days earlier in Knoxville to complete a sweep of the regular-season series. This time was different, though, as the Vols prevailed, 94-85.

Round 2 saw the Big Orange matched against a Mississippi State team that romped by 27 points a month earlier in Starkville. Now ranked 18th nationally and assured of an NCAA Tournament bid, the Bulldogs showed up with little focus and even less energy. The Big Orange took full advantage and posted a shocking 87-70 upset.

Tennessee’s semifinal opponent was Georgia. Like Ole Miss and Mississippi State, the Dawgs had swept the regular-season meetings with the Big Orange – romping 107-86 in Athens and 87-78 in Knoxville. Hugh Durham’s crew expected to make it three straight in Music City but the fired-up Vols, backed by their fired-up fans, coasted to an 85-65 victory.

Incredibly, a Tennessee team that lost 11 of its previous 12 outings had swept three games in three days to reach the finals of the SEC Tournament. Could the Vols cap the unlikeliest week in program history by beating No. 24 Alabama in the title game?

No. The Tide exploited Tennessee’s fatigue and pulled away for an 88-69 victory.

Still, the 1991 Vols made one point abundantly clear: Anything can happen at tournament time.

Can the 2015 Vols make a shocking SEC Tournament run, a la the ’91 Vols? Maybe. This year’s team is a lot better than the ’91 team. And, for what it’s worth, the tourney is being held in Nashville, site of the ’91 event.

LUCK OF THE DRAW HELPS UT

No. 10 seed Tennessee (15-15 overall, 7-11 SEC) got very few breaks during the regular season but the Vols lucked into a relatively manageable path to the SEC Tournament finals. After a first-round bye they will face No. 7 seed Vanderbilt (19-12, 9-9) in Thursday’s second round at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena.

The Big Orange and the Commodores split their regular-season matchups – Tennessee winning 76-73 in overtime Feb. 11 at Nashville and Vandy winning 73-65 Feb. 26 at Knoxville. Vandy hit 16 of 19 second-half shots, including nine of 11 from 3-point range, in the latter to prevail. The odds of that happening again must be astronomical.

Defeating the Commodores would earn the Vols a quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded Arkansas, a team they beat 74-69 in Knoxville and seriously challenged before bowing 69-64 in Fayetteville. Beating the Razorbacks on Friday would put Tennessee in Saturday’s semifinals, probably against No. 3 seed Georgia or No. 6 seed Ole Miss. The Vols pushed the Dawgs before bowing 56-53 in Athens and pushed the Rebels before falling 59-57 in Oxford.

Tennessee won’t have to face top-ranked and unbeaten Kentucky unless it reaches Sunday’s finals, which obviously is a significant advantage.


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