The last time this happened, I was nine years old.
It's never happened since the SEC went to its current 12-team divisional format.
The Vols have won the SEC East five times since 1992. Three of the previous four were met with first-game exits in the SEC Tournament, the fourth chased off by tornadoes and Arkansas on Saturday last year.
And yeah, maybe the Vols have had better teams under Bruce Pearl. Maybe these Vols don't go to the NCAA Tournament as a 2 seed or a 5 seed, as Pearl's first three teams have.
But now...now they've done something new. These Vol teams have done something that Kevin O'Neill, Jerry Green and Buzz Peterson's could not:
Tennessee is playing on Sunday in the SEC Tournament.
When Alabama banked in a prayer to beat the Vols last Sunday, it took some momentum away from what had been a great finish to the regular season, as the Vols went from a 16-10 bubble team to a 19-11 SEC East Champion. But in two days in Tampa, the Vols have shown every bit of the form that brought them wins at Florida and South Carolina...and then some.
Last night, it was up tempo against a tired Alabama team. Today, against an Auburn team on the bubble's edge, hotter than anyone else in the conference, the Vols scored 90+ points for the first time all season against an SEC foe, and used one great run to separate themselves from the Tigers, with plenty of the oft-sought consistency in between:
With 11:00 to play in the first half, the game was tied 18-18. The Vols went on a 22-8 run in the next seven minutes, putting a gap between the two teams that Auburn never had quite enough to overcome.
It started with a Bobby Maze three, which then turned into the Wayne Chism Show: Chism fired six threes in five minutes, hitting half of them, and adding a deuce inside and some great defense to push the Vols to a 40-26 lead. Chism finishes with a career high 27 points to go with 9 rebounds, and an assured spot on the All-Tournament Team.
The rest of the game was played evenly for the most part, but the Vols won some key stat battles to keep the scales tipped in their favor: outrebounding Auburn 40-24 (this after Auburn outrebounded them 34-21 in the regular season meeting), outshooting them 58% to 46%, and finding more of that lovely consistency from all parts: Tyler Smith scores 23 points, Bobby Maze posts a nice 11-6-5 line with only one turnover, and check this out: Scotty Hopson and Cameron Tatum, much maligned for an inability to produce points all year, combine for 8 of 12 shooting and 21 points.
JP Prince has had better moments, especially early, but he eventually evened out his six turnovers with six assists, to go along with nine points. Brian Williams grabs 7 rebounds in 17 minutes. And the Vols got to the line 27 times, making 17 (an "eh" 63%).
Against Alabama, Tennessee was awful from beind the arc (4 of 24). They won by two dozen points.
Against Auburn, the Vols were sloppy at times despite proving they could shoot better (9 of 19 from 3). But they still scored more points than they have since the season opener (and did so against an Auburn team that had only given up 80 once all year against SEC foes), and while they didn't get perfect play from anybody...they got good play from everybody.
All that takes us to 21-11 and an SEC Tournament Championship matchup with Mississippi State, which is where all of this began for the Vols two and a half weeks ago. In an 81-76 win in Knoxville, the Vols first showed signs of the offensive explosion they've enjoyed in their last five wins, and got a career night from Scotty Hopson. The Bulldogs jacked 30 threes then (Auburn shot 31 today), and they've been getting huge play from Jarvis Varnado all week in Tampa, who's averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds and 5 blocks in this tournament. And State will be playing for their NCAA Tournament lives, no longer just a dream but 40 minutes shy of reality. It's a chance for one shining moment for the Bulldogs.
But it's a chance for history for Tennessee. If you think just making it to Sunday is special, the Vols haven't won on Sunday since 1979. Many of us have never seen it. And as for the Vols' one shining moment, the more Tennessee wins the higher up the bracket it goes, and finishing strong could potentially push the Vols up to a 5 seed, a spot where I'd give them better than even odds for continuing this run into the Sweet 16. Two and a half weeks ago we were just worried about getting in. Now, almost everyone else in the SEC has fallen away, and the Vols aren't simply still standing...they're continuing to play their best basketball at the best time for it.
Seeding, momentum, history...all of it on the line tomorrow at 1:00 PM EDT. Can Tennessee add an SEC Tournament Championship to their Eastern Division title this season? And in their final chance to impress before the real game begins, can the Vols continue to show that this might just be a team to be reckoned with in the big dance after all?