For the first 100 years or so of their respective histories, Tennessee and Texas A&M had a casual, infrequent relationship in men’s basketball.
Between 1951 and 2003, there were several occasions to toss a jump ball in the air and see what’s what. Whether the Aggies or Vols prevailed, it wasn’t going to make or break either’s season.
All that changes Saturday.
There’s nothing casual about Tennessee’s visit to Reed Arena in College Station. This is SEC business. And as is often the case in late February, it’s important SEC business.
A four-game winning streak has added urgency to Tennessee’s agenda. A road win over the Aggies would keep NCAA tournament hopes progressive.
UT coach Cuonzo Martin probably would rather test the resilience of his team’s recent surge somewhere other than unfamiliar turf in the middle of Texas. But here the Vols are.
It was football demographics that added College Station and Columbia, Mo., to the SEC itinerary. Hoops and every other sport are merely along for the ride.
Since UT and A&M did not meet in football last fall, Saturday is the Vols’ first excursion into Aggie World as SEC brethren in a major sport. The Lady Vols and A&M women are on a collision course for Thursday night in Knoxville that could decide the SEC regular-season race.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the Vols have to manifest a sense of instant rivalry Saturday. The Aggies might seem like virtual strangers, akin to Virginia or Xavier, but that’s out of date. In the new world order, they matter as much as Vanderbilt or Kentucky.
Toward that end, here’s a primer to get you up to speed on who the Aggies are and where they come from.
There is some common ground — beyond sharing UTK chancellor Dr. Jimmy Cheek. He earned his undergrad and doctoral degrees at A&M.
Oddly enough, each program’s best player was named Bernard King. Tennessee’s King played at a higher level than A&M’s version, but the Aggie King did leave school in 2003 as the Big 12 Conference’s all-time leading scorer.
Both schools mustered six consecutive NCAA tournament runs from 2006-2011. The man who cranked up the Aggies was Billy Gillispie, who left in 2007 for Kentucky. You know how that turned out.
Both schools hired new coaches in 2011, Martin in UT’s case, Billy Kennedy for A&M.
Texas A&M’s version of Ray Mears is Shelby Metcalf, who arrived in 1963, a year after Mears got to Knoxville, and turned the Aggies into a consistent winner.
The series history amounts to only five games, the first in 1951. Tennessee won four, including two games three weeks apart in December 1985. One was in Stokely Athletics Center, the other in the Sugar Bowl Classic title game in New Orleans, the week of the storied football win over Miami.
That was it until Buzz Peterson scheduled a home-and-home. The Aggies won in College Station in 2002; the Vols returned the favor in 2003.
What would have been the most memorable meeting never happened. On March 22, 2007, UT lost to Ohio State 85-84 in San Antonio. On that same Sweet 16 card in the Alamo Dome, Texas A&M lost to Memphis 65-64. An Elite Eight showdown was sabotaged by two last-second possessions.
But all that’s past and, frankly, unimportant. Saturday, a rivalry is reborn in a whole new context.
Now, it matters.