Nothing surprises me anymore

With Tennessee's basketball team coming off a so-so 15-12 regular season that included an uninspiring 7-9 league record, I'm not looking for the Vols to reach the finals of the SEC Tournament this week in Atlanta.

But stranger things have happened. I know ... because I covered one of them.

Thirteen years ago, as a reporter for The Knoxville Journal, I traveled to Nashville to cover the 1991 SEC Tournament. Wade Houston's Vols, coming off a 9-21 regular season that included an abysmal 3-15 league record, were seeded ninth. They would've been seeded 10th (last), except that Kentucky was on probation and ineligible for the tournament.

The Vols' starting lineup in '91 consisted of one excellent player (Allan Houston), one good player (Lang Wiseman) and three role players -- Carlus Groves, Ronnie Reese and Jay Price. Since this was one of the worst Big Orange basketball teams ever assembled, I assumed it would lose its tourney opener and I'd be heading home on Interstate 40 shortly thereafter.

Well, I was wrong. Pathetic as they were, the '91 Vols still whipped a mediocre Ole Miss team 94-85 in Round 1. They shocked an 18th-ranked but uninspired Mississippi State team 87-70 in Round 2. Knowing they had nothing to lose, the Vols manhandled a flat Georgia team 85-65 in Round 3, earning the berth opposite Alabama in the tourney finals.

Tennessee's magic carpet ride ended in the championship game -- Bama romped 88-69 -- but I had learned an important lesson: Expect the unexpected at tourney time. Great teams sometimes get cocky, good teams sometimes get tense, and bad teams sometimes get lucky.

Don't get me wrong. I figure UT's chances of winning three games and reaching this year's SEC Tourney finals are roughly one in 50. But I thought UT's chances of winning three games and reaching the tourney finals in 1991 were roughly one in 1,000 ... and look what happened.

For what it's worth, Tennessee seems to be playing its best basketball of the year. The Vols' last three games saw them sandwich homefloor defeats of Auburn and South Carolina around a three-point road loss at Vanderbilt. The defense, a glaring weakness at times, limited each of those teams to less than 40 percent shooting. In fact, they shot a combined 37.1 percent from the floor and a cumulative 31.7 percent from 3-point range. If Tennessee can continue playing that type of defense during the SEC Tournament, the Vols just might make it to the title game.

Stranger things have happened. I know ... because I covered one of them.


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