Since Alabama hadn't won an SEC road game all year, it seemed to be the perfect guest. But the Tide shocked Tennessee 76-71 that evening, and Vol basketball has been caught in a downward spiral ever since. Tennessee wound up losing five of its last seven regular-season games of 2002-03 AND blowing its NCAA Tournament bid. Things continued downhill in 2003-04 (a 15-14 season that ended with a first-round NIT loss) and 2004-05 (a 10-10 record thus far).
As a result, the mood in Big Orange Country has changed radically. Prior to the 2003 UT-Alabama game, Vol fans were excited about the anticipated NCAA bid and optimistic about the future. Now, as the 2005 UT-Alabama tipoff approaches, those same fans are still waiting for an NCAA bid and growing increasingly frustrated with the program.
I believe that loss to Alabama on Feb. 22, 2003 was the single most devastating setback of the Buzz Peterson era. I also believe tonight's game with the Tide could be just as crucial. Here's why:
The Vols are coming off their best performance of the year in a 77-55 blowout of LSU. If they could beat Bama tonight and Florida on Saturday, they should have a 50-50 chance of winning at Ole Miss on Feb. 19. Then they'll be back home to face South Carolina Feb. 23 in another winnable game. If things fall UT's way, it could take a five-game winning streak and a 14-10 record into its Feb. 26 game at Arkansas.
I don't see the Vols beating the Razorbacks in Fayetteville and I certainly don't see them beating Kentucky in Lexington on March 2. But they should beat Georgia in the home finale on March 5. That would produce a 15-12 overall record and a 9-7 league mark heading into the SEC Tournament. That won't earn Tennessee an NCAA bid but it should help Buzz (A) quiet some of his critics and (B) recruit Jamont Gordon, a potential difference-maker.
The addition of Gordon and Tyler Smith for 2005-06 might be enough to restore a sense of optimism to the program and buy Peterson more time to get his act together.
Of course, if Bama wins tonight's game by 20 points, the tumble that began with Tennessee's loss to the Tide in 2003 could become a freefall.