They will come, with their blue and their spelling, and infiltrate our place of business. Our home.
They will come, with their NBA talent, whether now or later. They will come with their dance card already punched. They will come in search of the same first round bye that we seek. But most important to them, they will come in search of the one thing that has eluded them: one last chance to get a meaningful SEC road win. One last chance to prove to themselves what they are capable of. One last chance to build momentum at the perfect time. And at our expense, which they value more than any other. In our home.
Other than a few years in the student section, I've sat in the same seats in the upper deck at Thompson-Boling Arena since it opened in 1987. The upper deck at TBA is the front line of the Tennessee-Kentucky rivalry. They will come. We'd better be ready.
None of us know what's going to happen in a few weeks, whenever this crazy season meets its end. We know we're saying goodbye to Melvin Goins, John Fields, Josh Bone, and Steven Pearl - we barely know the first three guys, and we're still getting used to Baby Pearl being known more for his reverse layup and he-makes-everyone-on-the-floor-better quality than his free throw percentage and get-that-guy-off-the-floor quality.
The one guy out of this senior class we know really well doesn't even get to play. Brian Williams is the constant, the only guy on this team who played in the FedEx Forum in February 2008. His back will have to wait until (we hope) the SEC Tournament, but he shouldn't have to wait to receive our gratitude. After all, he's lost weight, you know.
This could be the last time we see Scotty Hopson in Thompson-Boling. The last time he saw Kentucky, his ankle wasn't 100%. Since that game, he's averaging 23.6 points per contest. Our little boy is all grown up. Now he'll get one more chance against his home state. With our last great NBA player in attendance to watch his number go into the rafters, does another Kentucky boy have one great game left in him against the bluegrass?
It could be the last time we see Tobias Harris in Thompson-Boling, which means this is his one and only chance to make an impact in the game that matters most in Knoxville. He couldn't do so at Rupp Arena, with 3 of 9 shooting, 5 turnovers, and only 2 rebounds. Without Brian Williams, he needs to be a grown man in the paint.
And this could be the last time we see Bruce Pearl on the bench in Knoxville.
None of us knows what's coming next. And none of us knows what's coming now - this team remains a mystery on most nights.
But if there was ever a day to put all of the distractions, all of the inconsistency, and all of the negative aside? To just say screw it and unleash our best basketball?
Today's the day.
I'm painfully aware that it could be awhile before a game of this magnitude returns to Knoxville. Even if Pearl somehow avoids suspension and is available next year, if both Hopson and Harris go pro the Vols are instantly rebuilding. And if the NCAA drops the hammer, there are no guarantees. As inconsistent and frustrating as we've been this year, we've still got "it". This is a bigtime college basketball game, with bigtime implications in a bigtime rivalry that finally, finally matters.
I grew up in that upper deck listening to them spell, watching them treat their stress-free visit to Knoxville like a nice weekend getaway - basically, the way we treat them in football. Bruce Pearl is the reason that Kentucky's days of walking into Knoxville and walking out with a free win are over. But if this all goes south with the NCAA? Kentucky will always be good. If we lose it, I don't know how long it will take us to get it back.
But we haven't lost it yet. Not yet.
At its best, this is a physical, tough, smart basketball team that beats you in ways basketball fans can appreciate: halfcourt defense and offensive rebounding. A team that wins with everybody, because our ten are better than their six. It wins because of Scotty Hopson, but it also wins because of Steven Pearl.
At its best, this is a team with a swagger that it left in Pittsburgh. If we don't find it today, I'm not sure when it'll return.
Now is the time.
Tennessee needs to come out and establish very early and very often that even without Brian Williams, we will not be treated like little children in our own house in the paint. This is not a tough Kentucky team - not on the road, not in the interior. What happened in the first game - outrebounded by ten, dominated by Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins - was a disgrace. What happens today better be different, and we need to let everybody know - us, them, and every fan in the arena - that it's going to be different right away.
Tennessee needs to continue to remind Kentucky that we're not going away - not yet. Bruce Pearl needs to continue to remind John Calipari that of all the reasons they can't stand each other, the way Pearl looks Cal's best teams in the face and makes them blink is at the top of the list. And Cal's best team, this is not.
This is a Kentucky team looking for answers on the road. Knoxville should be the last place they find them.
This is a Tennessee team still looking for itself. No better opportunity to find it than this day against this team.
This matters. I don't know what's coming next. There's basketball left for this team after this, but nothing will help these Vols in those games more than winning today - both in terms of quality of opponent in Atlanta and on the seed line in the Big Dance, and for the overall confidence of this team.
And then there's a lot of unknown left for this program. I don't know how soon we'll matter after that.
But all this team and this program has is today. And today is the day for Tennessee to rally together, and make sure that our singing is louder than their spelling at the end of the day.
I hope your church has an early service.