Many moons ago (probably 15 years or so) Burger King served tacos. Yes, that Burger King. The tacos didn't stay on the menu very long because, well, I think I was the only human ingesting the delightfully crafted Mexican delicacies. I was able to talk a select few skeptical friends into trying the tacos because I believe you could get two for 99 cents so what was there to lose? Whenever a friend tried the tacos (at my persistent urging), he went into the tasting with a preconceived notion that the tacos would be awful. I don't think anyone I got to try the tacos even finished a single one. I am starting this post with this story because it's something that most people I know today do not know about me. Heck, most folks reading this post probably didn't even know that the King once had tacos on his menu.
While my BK taco loving days from the mid-90's are not widely known by those who I interact with in 2012, there are other things about me that most people are pretty certain about. One of the things most realize pretty quickly about me is I am a hoops junkie. I simply love the game of basketball at all levels. From high school to the NAIA to the NCAA to the NBA, (even International) I love it all. I am a big fan of other sports too, but I think what sets basketball apart in my eyes is the personal attachments I have developed over the years with individual teams during the course of the ebbs and flows that constitute a season. A few of my favorite squads of all-time are the '95-'96 Chester County (HS) Eagles, '93-'94 New York Knicks, '98-'99 New York Knicks, '09-'10 University of Tennessee Volunteers (really all the teams from the Pearl era) and the '10-'11 Memphis Grizzlies.
Another one of my favorite teams of all-time would be the '01-'02 Freed-Hardeman (NAIA) Lions of the TranSouth Athletic Conference. There are many reasons this team resonated and still resonates with me. I graduated from Freed-Hardeman in December 2001 so that season was my last to enjoy as a college student. Secondly, I was friends with many of the players on that team, and there are several that I still keep in regular contact with to this day. Finally, Coach Mike McCutchen's '01-'02 team was loaded for bear. The team was led by Hall-of-Fame swing man Jamie Norsworthy (all time leading scorer at FHU) who had the ability to attack the basket with reckless abandon or stroke it from deep. At guard, FHU touted Chester County legend Eric Jones, Mr. Consistency Tony Lambert and deep bomber Chris Haynes. In the post, they were tough to match up with as Coach McCutchen trotted out 6'11" Slovakian Tomas Oresansky and prolific scorer Wes "BB" Miller. FHU came out of the starting blocks like Ben Johnson on steroids sporting an astounding record of 22-2 three-quarters of the way through the season. (FHU was the first team in all of college basketball to reach 22 wins in '01-'02.) Unfortunately, the 22-2 mark was where the team peaked. Just like The Oregon Trail on a 5 1/2" floppy disc, the wheels fell off the wagon during the final ten games of the year as my Lions faltered down the stretch run of the conference season. FHU would finish out the year 3-7 to finish at 25-9 on the season. This stretch run prevented the Lions from being invited to the NAIA National Tournament. This left everyone from the players to the fans with a hollow feeling in their stomachs. It was a free fall that still cannot be explained. In fact, I talked to a couple of my friends that played on that team before writing this post, and they still had no answers. Some of the losses at the end were blowouts while some were hard fought heart-breakers. The 25 wins still stand as a school record that all of the Lions from that era should be proud of. I was at almost every home game that season planted in the bleachers behind the basket and went on the road for a few games too. That season is when my girlfriend (now wife) became a fan of the game of basketball. I wouldn't trade that fandom experience for anything. The Lions were great for three-quarters of the year; they started strongly but just didn't finish the same way.
This season's Cuonzo Martin led University of Tennessee Volunteers basketball team is the polar opposite of the '01-'02 FHU Lions (FHU started strongly and finished poorly while UT started slowly but is finishing strongly). Coming off of the dynamic six year Bruce Pearl era, many UT fans were apprehensive going into year one of the Cuonzo Martin era. This feeling of worry was partly justified as the Vols were coming off the best six year stretch in program history and had hired an unknown (to many) in Martin. Also, the Vols lost their two best players from last year's team in Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson. UT was picked to finish 11th in the SEC by the media, a far cry from the Elite 8 run in 2010. The Vols showed promise at the very beginning of this season in Maui by losing a close ten point contest to Duke and losing a double-OT thriller vs. the Memphis Tigers. The hope that came from those two close losses to top competition was quickly dashed as the Vols lost three games to mid-major schools - at Oakland, at home vs. Austin Peay and at College of Charleston. At this point in the season, the media's prediction for the Vols to finish 11th in league play looked like a pretty safe bet. How is this team going to win more than three or four SEC games? many wondered.
The Vols began SEC play with a 1-3 mark, but then things started to click. Jarnell Stokes found the floor and immediately started finding his way. The team's defense improved, and the Vols started getting offensive contributions from a myriad of players. Cam Tatum was mired in a horrendous shooting slump but was able to keep his minutes by playing great defense, rebounding and passing the ball well. Since starting 1-3 in SEC play, the Vols have gone 8-3 in league play making them an impressive 9-6 (17-13 overall). There's something special about watching a team develop and improve in conference play. The game at LSU on Wednesday, 02/29 was especially gratifying. The Vols trailed the entire game but were able to get it to overtime and eventually win by a score of 74-69. It was sheer grit and grind (sorry Grizz). In fact, the Vols first lead of the game didn't come until overtime when the much beleaguered Cam Tatum splashed a three pointer to begin the extra stanza. I was on the edge of my recliner watching the game in low-def on CSS (first world problems).
The Vols are fighting tooth and nail to play their way out of the NIT. One regular season game remains vs. the very talented yet underachieving rival Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena. If the Vols are able to beat Vanderbilt then they will be the #2 seed in the SEC Tournament (at least this is how I understand it from reading Clay Travis' explanation). Finishing second would be huge for several reasons. 1.) The Vols would make a statement in Coach Martin's first year. Picked to finish 11th out of 12 teams, a second place showing would obviously be exceeding expectations. 2.) It would allow the Vols to make a run to the championship game to face Kentucky instead of having to play them earlier in the draw.
I think the second point is key because the only way I see the Vols making the NCAA Tournament (outside of winning the SEC Tournament) would be to beat Vanderbilt Saturday and then make a run to the SEC Tournament Finals vs. Kentucky and at least keep it close vs. the mighty Cats. (Even then, nothing would be guaranteed.)
No matter what happens, the Vols have had a very good season all things considered. They started slowly but are finishing with a vengeance. Hopefully that finish will come in the Big Dance, but I'll take a NIT run too. If they make it to the Big Dance, I'll buy the tacos.