When Tennessee takes on Kentucky in the SEC Tournament Finals on Sunday, they’ll be facing more than just the Wildcats; they’ll be taking on history as well.
At this point, just about every Vol fan knows that Tennessee hasn’t won the SEC Tournament title since 1979. But that’s not the only history they’ll be trying to take down in today’s final. There are plenty of other factors as well.
Not only has it been nearly 40 years since the Vols last won the title, but it’s also been nearly 40 years since Tennessee last won three consecutive games against the Wildcats. The Vols beat Kentucky three times in the 1979 season, and the third time was to win the SEC Tournament. Tennessee is looking to repeat history on Sunday when they face the Wildcats.
The Vols beat Kentucky 76-65 in Knoxville back in January and defeated them 61-59 in Lexington in February. And on Sunday, they’ll be trying to do something they’ve rarely done: Beat Kentucky three straight times.
Defeating the Wildcats in three consecutive games isn’t something Tennessee has done often. It’s been 39 years since they last did it, and throughout the storied rivalry that’s taken place nearly every year since 1910, the Vols have only held a three-game winning streak or better against Kentucky six times.
In that same span of time, the Wildcats have beaten the Vols in at least three consecutive contests 19 different times.
Sunday marks the 26th time since the tournament was reinstated in 1979 that Kentucky will be playing for the tournament title. It marks just the third time since 1979 that Tennessee will be playing for it.
I don’t need to tell Vol fans not to take this opportunity for granted. Vol fans have been championship starved for at least a decade, and this team winning the co-regular season championship in the SEC brought with it a celebration the likes of which I’ve not seen. And that was for a shared regular season title.
Can you imagine if the Vols defeat Kentucky and bring home the tournament title too?
Tennessee is in the SEC Tournament Finals for the first time since 2009. If you remember back to that time in Tennessee basketball history, it feels like a completely different university in a completely different era. The Vols were in the middle of the Bruce Pearl era, were a season removed from the team that made it to No. 1 in the country briefly, and were just another year away from the program’s only Elite Eight run.
The good times were rolling back then. It seemed as though the possibilities in the Bruce Pearl era were limitless. Little did we all know, however, that all that would come to an abrupt halt in just two years.
Since Tennessee’s last SEC Tournament Finals appearance, they had only made it to the semifinals of the tournament twice prior to this year’s run. That’s just two semifinals appearances in the last eight years. In the meantime, Kentucky made the tournament finals seven of those eight years.
When it comes to the SEC Tournament, no team has better luck or more success than Kentucky. And you can argue that no team has had less success over the last four decades in the tournament than Tennessee. And the two will be playing on Sunday to decide which program gets to bring home the title.
Luckily for the Vols, their players haven’t been with the program for the last 40 years. They’ve been here just two or three years tops. The cross of history is the fans’ weight to bear. And bear it they have.
If the Vols can defeat Kentucky for the third time this season on Sunday and win the SEC title, expect jubilation from Tennessee’s fan base. It will likely be the biggest celebration for any men’s sport at UT in well over a decade, even bigger than the celebration for the 2010 Elite Eight team. If Tennessee doesn’t win the title, then history will have won. But this team still has a chance to defeat more history in the NCAA Tournament. This team is good enough to do that.
The Wildcats won’t be the Vols’ only opponent on Sunday, but don’t expect Rick Barnes to let his team think about that too much. They just want to go hang some more banners.