Like oil and water, it's no secret that Tennessee men's basketball and the SEC tournament haven't exactly meshed.
The unsuccessful trend dates back multiple decades. Nobody in orange has snipped down an SEC tournament net since 1979, and in that time, only two UT squads have even reached the championship game — 1991 and 2009.
And the current Volunteers are well aware.
"We have to understand that history is against us," forward Jarnell Stokes said Wednesday before boarding the bus to head to Atlanta, for the tournament. "As Vols, we normally don't do good in the SEC tournament. I grew up as a Vol fan, so I knew that."
The struggles also have their place in recent history. The past two seasons under head coach Cuonzo Martin, the Vols have entered the SEC tournament with Big Dance aspirations following a late-season surge. In order to turn those ambitions into a reality though, UT still required a decent showing in the conference's postseason event.
Both years, the Vols failed, dropping quarterfinal matchups to Ole Miss in 2012 and Alabama in 2013 — neither showing good enough to send Martin's squad happily dancing.
"We knew the games were must win games," senior Jordan McRae said of the past two SEC tournaments. "(We) just had guys playing flat."
With that same situation creeping up for a third-consecutive season — albeit the Vols appear to be in a little better shape bubble-wise this year than in the previous two — UT isn't looking to complete the minimum requirements for a NCAA tournament ticket this time around.
They want the extra credit work as well.
"I feel like maybe previously we would be itching for that one win," Stokes said. "But now we feel like we want to test how well we've been playing. We felt like when we played against Auburn, maybe we can't do it against Missouri. Now we do it against Missouri, and we want to test how well we can do it in the SEC tourney.
"So I don't think we're looking at one game. I think we're looking at the bigger picture."
Zooming out, it appears the Vols' SEC tourney route could include a date with top-ranked Florida if UT could survive into the semifinals. The Gators, who ran through the conference with an unblemished 18-0 record, are the overwhelming favorites to dominate Atlanta.
However, Martin believes the neutral venue can help produce an unpredicted champion.
"That's always the case when you have a tournament setting," Martin said. "Shots fall in different venues. Anything can happen in tournament settings."
One down, one to go
UT's weekend path became a bit clearer Wednesday night as one of its three possible quarterfinal opponents was eliminated. South Carolina beat Auburn 74-56 in the opening round of the SEC tournament, meaning the Vols will meet the winner of Arkansas and USC on Friday afternoon.
How to approach an undetermined foe?
In Martin's eyes, it's rather simple.
"You focus on Tennessee basketball," the third-year coach said. "Some of those teams you might play — if they present something that you don't normally see, then you go over it in practice situations. You don't necessarily say the name of the team, but you go over it just in case you need it.
"But you just play the way you're capable of playing, and you'll be fine."
His No. 1 defensive stopper certainly concurs.
"We ready for anybody," junior guard Josh Richardson said.
After freshman guard Robert Hubbs unveiled UT's new "smokey gray" uniforms on March 6, it was quickly determined that the alternate attire wouldn't be worn until at least the SEC tournament.
So how about Friday?
"Possibly, I'm not sure though." Martin said with a grin. "Possibly."