The Vols will play their first game of the 2017 SEC Tournament on Thursday when they take on the Georgia Bulldogs. Tennessee is the No. 9 seed playing the No. 8 seed Bulldogs, and it marks the third time in three consecutive years the Vols have been a seed in the lower half of the SEC for the tournament.
This year’s Tennessee squad has been exciting to watch, if not inconsistent in their play throughout the season. But the Vols’ history in the SEC Tournament shows it doesn’t always matter how they play in the regular season when it comes to how they perform in the tournament. Despite Bruce Pearl’s success in his early years at Tennessee, it took him until his third season as head coach to even win an SEC Tournament game. But then Pearl would go on to take the Vols to two semifinal appearances and one appearance in the finals of the SEC Tournament.
But other than that brief period of success, Tennessee’s performance in the SEC Tournament has been little to brag about.
First, let’s take a look at how the SEC Tournament format has changed over the years. The SEC Tournament went on hiatus from 1953-1978. When it came back, all SEC teams were ranked how they are now with no divisions to split them up. But when the conference expanded in 1992, the conference split into the East and West. Football still uses these divisions, but basketball went back to having no divisions for the 2011-12 season and remains that way today. Once it expanded to that format, the SEC Tournament now implements both byes and double byes, meaning teams who finish in the top four in the conference don’t have to play in the first two rounds of the tournament and teams ranked 5-10 don’t play in the first round.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, we can take a look at how the Vols have performed in the SEC Tournament throughout the years.
Once the tournament renewed in 1979, the Vols became the first team to win a title in the new SEC Tournament. Since then, however, the Vols haven’t won a SEC Tournament championship and have only made it to two championship games in the 37 years since.
According to data compiled by the SEC Tournament record book, the Vols actually have the third-best SEC Tournament record all-time. Tennessee’s .551 win percentage (65-53 record) trails only Kentucky’s .836 winning percentage and Alabama’s .554 percentage. In fact, the Vols are one of only three teams with winning records in the SEC Tournament.
Those numbers are skewed, however. Most of the Vols’ tournament wins came before the tournament’s hiatus from 1953-78. Over half (35) of Tennessee’s SEC Tournament victories came between 1933-1952, and three of their four tournament titles came in that span as well.
Since the renewal of the SEC Tournament in 1979, the Vols are a mere 30-37 in the tournament.
Recent history hasn’t been kind to the Vols either. Aside from the 7-5 record the Vols earned in the tournament under Bruce Pearl, Tennessee has struggled to make it far in the SEC postseason. Pearl’s 2008 squad that made it to the semifinals marked the first time a Tennessee team had made it that far in the tournament since conference expansion in 1992.
In fact, ever since the end of the Bruce Pearl era in 2011, the Vols have gone just 5-5 in the SEC Tournament. Last season under Rick Barnes marked the first time since the 2010 tournament that the Vols even won more than one game in a single tournament run.
The Vols don’t have much positive SEC Tournament experience to fall back on to give them hope heading into this year’s tournament. Tennessee did make a surprising run under Barnes last season, but that was a slight glimmer in an otherwise dark history, especially recently.
Even if the Vols beat Georgia in this tournament, they will have to play No. 1 seed Kentucky in the next round. So this doesn’t look like the year for the Vols to change their SEC Tournament luck.