History of futility

Cuonzo Martin

InsideTennessee brings you the story behind the story. Check out this interesting look at the Basketball Vols' ongoing SEC Tournament struggles.

It doesn't matter where the tournament is held or where Tennessee is seeded. It doesn't matter who Tennessee's coach is or who the opponent is.

These details are meaningless when the SEC basketball tournament arrives each year because the Vols always find a way to lose. Since the league tourney resumed in 1979, the Big Orange has compiled a pitiful 25-33 record.

The lone bright spot: First-year coach Don DeVoe's Vols got a first-round bye, then won two games to claim the tournament championship at Birmingham in '79. Since then, the conference tourney has been a study in futility for Tennessee and its fans.

The Big Orange suffered Game 1 losses to Ole Miss in the 1980 and '81 tourneys, despite being ranked No. 10 nationally in the latter. Both events were held at Birmingham.

The tournament moved to Lexington in '82 but Tennessee's luck remained the same. After edging Vanderbilt in Game 1, the Vols were ousted by Alabama 50-56 in Game 2.

Returning to Birmingham for the '83 tourney, Tennessee beat Florida and LSU in Rounds 1 and 2 before getting blown out by an unranked Georgia team 60-79 in the semifinals.

Playing the '84 tourney in Nashville should have helped the Vols but it didn't. Tennessee nipped Florida in overtime, then lost 58-60 to Auburn in Round 2.

DeVoe lost a second-round game to Georgia in '85 at Birmingham, a first-round game to Ole Miss in '86 at Lexington, a second-round game to Alabama in '87 at Atlanta and a first-round game to Florida in '88 at Baton Rouge.

Tennessee got to host the SEC Tournament in '89 but even that didn't help. Playing in the friendly confines of Thompson-Boling Arena, the Vols beat LSU in Round 1, then lost to Florida in Round 2. DeVoe was relieved of his duties a week later, following a 16-point loss to West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Despite a new coach (Wade Houston) and a new tourney site (Orlando), Tennessee experienced the same old result in 1990: The Vols dropped their SEC tourney opener to Ole Miss.

Ironically, one of the worst teams Tennessee ever fielded nearly won the league tournament in 1991. After going 12-22 overall and 3-15 in conference play, the '91 Vols won three games in Nashville before losing 69-88 to Alabama in the championship game.

Things quickly returned to normal after that. Tennessee dropped a second-round game to LSU at Birmingham in 1992, then suffered the most one-sided loss in program history at Lexington in '93, bowing 40-101 in Round 2 versus a Kentucky squad the Vols had beaten 78-77 three weeks earlier in Knoxville.

Tennessee capped a 5-22 disaster by suffering a first-round SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State at Memphis in 1994, and Houston was shown the door shortly thereafter.

Kevin O'Neill was the next guy to experience the futility of coaching Tennessee in the league tourney. He suffered a first-round loss to Alabama in '95 at Atlanta, a second-round loss to Georgia in '96 at New Orleans and a first-round loss to Auburn in '97 at Memphis. O'Neill bolted for Northwestern shortly after returning to Knoxville.

Jerry Green posted four 20-win seasons overseeing the Vols but he was just as inept as his predecessors at SEC tourney time. Green suffered a second-round loss to Arkansas in 1998 at Atlanta and a first-round loss to Mississippi State in '99 at Atlanta. Green's third Tennessee squad entered the league tournament with a 24-5 record and a No. 6 national ranking but promptly lost its tourney opener to unranked South Carolina, 68-75, also in Atlanta. The Vols suffered a Game 2 loss to Ole Miss in 2001 at Nashville, and Green was axed a week later after a first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Charlotte.

Buzz Peterson was fresh from an NIT championship when he took the Vol reins but he forgot to bring his tourney magic with him. Peterson's Vol squads suffered a 19-point second-round loss to Alabama in 2002 at Atlanta, a 13-point first-round loss to Auburn in 2003 at New Orleans, a 35-point first-round beat-down at the hands of Bama in '04 at Atlanta and a 14-point second-round loss to Kentucky in '05. Peterson was fired two days later.

Bruce Pearl's six-year run on The Hill brought three SEC East titles, six NCAA Tournament bids, an Elite Eight appearance and a brief reign as the No. 1 team in the national polls. Even he couldn't break Tennessee's SEC Tournament jinx, however.

Pearl suffered Game 1 losses to South Carolina in 2006 at Nashville and LSU in 2007 at Atlanta, despite being nationally ranked each time. His third Vol squad rolled into the SEC Tournament with a 28-3 record and No. 4 national ranking but still suffered a second-round loss to unranked Arkansas in 2008 at Atlanta. Pearl's '09 team won twice before losing to Mississippi State in the SEC finals and his 2010 squad won twice before suffering a 45-74 annihilation at the hands of Kentucky in the semis. His final Vol squad won its SEC tourney opener before losing by 11 to Florida in Round 2 at Atlanta.

First-year head man Cuonzo Martin, questioned last week about Tennessee's history of futility in SEC Tournament play, said he was unaware of it.

He's aware of it now. His 2011-12 Vols rolled into this weekend's tourney with a No. 2 seed and eight wins in their previous nine games. That didn't matter, of course. The Big Orange matched its season-low with 28.1-percent shooting in losing its opener to an Ole Miss squad it had beaten by 13 points just 16 days earlier.

The players change. The coaches change. The sites change. The futility continues.

VOL COACHES IN SEC TOURNEY

Don DeVoe 9 wins, 10 losses

Wade Houston 5 wins, 5 losses

Kevin O'Neill 1 win, 3 losses

Jerry Green 2 wins, 4 losses

Buzz Peterson 2 wins, 4 losses

Bruce Pearl 6 wins, 6 losses

Cuonzo Martin 0 wins, 1 loss

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