ATLANTA - In the years since the SEC expanded in 1992, there was one reliable trend at the men's basketball tournament.
When you looked around on Saturday there wasn't any orange in the arena.
Tennessee had checked out. Adios. Auf Weidersehen. Aloha.
The Vols usually checked out Thursday night. Occasionally, they hung around until Friday.
But you could bank on it that by Saturday, semifinals day when the tournament gets serious, Tennessee was nowhere to be found.
"When I first got the job,'' UT coach Bruce Pearl reminisced Wednesday at the Georgia Dome, "and people met me, it was, 'You're our new basketball coach? Good luck.'
"That was sort of the attitude, that it just wasn't happening.''
The 2011 edition of the SEC tournament begins today and finds Pearl not exactly at the peak of his popularity. It's been a rough season, on and off the court.
Still, give Pearl his due: as much as the Vols have struggled of late, the idea of Tennessee going one-and-done is no longer the assumption.
Tennessee may or may not beat Arkansas tonight. But at least the Big Orange nation feels like a part of the event now.
Chalk it up as another culture change.
"I packed enough clothes to stay for more than one day,'' said senior Brian Williams.
That hasn't often been necessary.
This is the 20th anniversary of the Vols' remarkable, unexpected run to the 1991 tournament championship game, where they were finally stopped by Alabama.
The SEC began its new era the following year with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina. Somehow, Tennessee disappeared.
The Vols had the lowest tournament profile of any school in the conference. That goes for the team and the fans.
From 1992 until 2007, Tennessee was the only school that failed to reach the semifinals.
Four times UT earned a first-round bye. Didn't help. They got the heave-ho on Friday.
In those 16 years, the Vols won a grand total of seven games in the tournament, fewest of any school.
Allan Houston was the MVP of the 1991 tournament. For the next 17 years, Tennessee produced a solitary member of the All-Tournament team, Steve Hamer in 1996.
Whether it was the Georgia Dome, the Super Dome, The Pyramid, Orlando or Nashville, the Vols might as well have been in Witness Protection.
That has changed. The first round of March Madness no longer means it's time for a nap.
Pearl arrived for the 2005-06 season. He inherited a program that had lost five consecutive SEC tournament games, all by double digits.
Good luck, coach.
Pearl's first two Tennessee teams fared no better. At least they lost by single digits.
"That was hard,'' Pearl said. "I think our guys have got a sense for our fans traveling, families traveling, and what it's like to lose in the first round and people plan on coming for the weekend and then have to go home.''
But he finally broke through. In 2008, Saturday morning dawned and Tennessee was still here. Arkansas made a buzzer-beating shot to deny UT a berth on Sunday.
In 2009 in Tampa, the Vols did play all the way until Sunday, making their first championship game appearance since '91. Mississippi State won the title, 64-61.
Last year, Tennessee won on Thursday and Friday then got bombed by a fresher Kentucky in the semifinals.
But that's three years in a row the Vols were around on Saturday. So were their fans.
In fact, in those three years only Tennessee and Mississippi State have played in three semifinals.
"History matters to me,'' Pearl said. "That's been important. I think it matters to the players.
"And I will tell them that if we have an opportunity to advance in this tournament, I-75 South will continue to fill up with cars traveling down from the Volunteer State.''
In the past, those cars were going the other direction.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.