KNOXVILLE — Tennessee's basketball Volunteers boarded the bus to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference tournament Wednesday afternoon riding a four-game win streak that includes the last three wins by a combined 93 points.
Yet they don't have history on their side.
It's been 35 years since Tennessee last won the event, when coach Don DeVoe and top scorer Reggie Johnson led the Vols to a 75-69 overtime win against Kentucky in 1979. It's been a run of frustration, futility and quick exits for the Vols since that triumph in Birmingham.
This group is hoping to change that.
"We have to understand that our history is against us, because as Vols we normally don't do good in the SEC tournament," All-SEC post player Jarnell Stokes said before hopping on the bus. "I grew up as a Vol fan. I know that, so I definitely want to be the person to break history. That's what I came here for."
Since its last tournament title, Tennessee has made the final just twice. Once was as the No. 9 seed under Wade Houston before falling to Alabama in 1991. Former coach Bruce Pearl's best tournament run ended in a 64-61 loss to Mississippi State in the final in Tampa in 2009.
Since 1979, Tennessee has gone one-and-done in the SEC tournament 15 times.
"It'd just mean a lot [to reverse the trend]," leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "That's what we're going down there planning to do. We've just got to do the same things we've been doing."
In the past two seasons under Cuonzo Martin, the Vols are 1-2 in the league tournament, and both times Tennessee went into the tournament needing a win or two to better its NCAA tournament chances.
Ole Miss beat Tennessee, then the No. 2 seed, in overtime in New Orleans two years ago, and after a win against Mississippi State in Nashville, the Vols were bounced by Alabama in the quarterfinals.
"We've always just come out flat, and I think right now we're on a real run with the way we're playing defense," McRae said. "We just have to continue doing the same things.
"I think we were looking at them as must-win games, and just had guys come out playing flat. But I think we've been good at just playing how we know how to play. We've got to keep doing it."
Tennessee, seeded fourth in this tournament, likely will play Arkansas on Friday, assuming the Razorbacks can beat the winner of tonight's first-round matchup of South Carolina and Auburn. The Vols beat Arkansas 81-74 in Knoxville behind 34 points from McRae. Like Tennessee, the Hogs are on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Though Tennessee entered the week 18 spots higher than Arkansas in the Rating Percentage Index, the perception of that potential matchup is that it's a play-in game for the NCAA tournament.
"If you get an obvious situation," ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi said during a conference call Wednesday, "like where St. John's is playing Providence tomorrow or maybe Tennessee playing Arkansas Friday or maybe St. Joe's playing Dayton on Friday, these aren't just all in or all out.
"It's not unrealistic, nor do I think it's inappropriate for someone to say these teams are so close, and we're watching, how can that not be a rubber game or a play-in kind of situation. Usually there's one or two of those a year, and it looks like this year we're going to have three.
"I think for the most part the loser of all three of those games, should they happen, is not going to make it. Tennessee has the best chance to lose and stay among that group."
Since a second loss to Texas A&M more than two weeks ago, Tennessee has been in must-win mode, and that doesn't change despite its recent hot streak.
"The only thing you can control is how you play," Martin said. "You play the way you're capable of playing, you'll be fine. You should be fine."
The Vols feel confident going into this SEC tournament that they can reverse their poor history.
"I feel like in previous years, we didn't shoot the ball particularly well," Stokes said, "but I feel like this year, it's looking like things will be different because guys are clicking as far as with confidence and on the defensive end."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...