John Clay

Will Tennessee fans threaten Kentucky fans’ hold on SEC Tournament?

Blue will get in.

But so will Orange.

Never mind which team comes out on top on the floor at the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament this week in Nashville. The real question is which fan base comes out on top when it comes to filling the seats at Bridgestone Arena — Kentucky Blue or Tennessee Orange?

The SEC Tournament is Kentucky’s thing. And why not? The Cats have won it 32 times, including the last four. John Calipari claims not to care about the annual confab, yet he’s won six of nine during his time as Kentucky coach. Heaven help the rest of the league if Cal really cared.

Kentucky fans care. They care a lot. As proven last year in St. Louis, Big Blue Nation will travel to see their beloved Cats in tournament play. That’s especially true when the site is Nashville. Nash-vegas is barely more than a stone’s throw from the state line. It’s golden for UK fans who can’t make their way to Rupp.

This year is different, however. This year, Tennessee is good. Very good. And Nashville is (a) just three hours from Knoxville, and (b) where a ton of UT alums happen to live.

“If Tennessee is ever going to overtake Kentucky fans at a neutral site, this could be the year, especially when you consider the two regular-season games between the teams.” wrote longtime Knoxville News Sentinel columnist John Adams this week. “There were a lot more UT fans at Rupp Arena than there were Kentucky fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.”

In fact, there was so much Orange in Rupp on Feb. 16, Calipari noted later that it was the first time during his Kentucky tenure he actually noticed fans of the other team in the arena. That just showed, said Cal, how much Tennessee fans were into their team this season.

Alas, a sad Big Orange caravan trekked down I-75 south back to Knoxville. Kentucky rolled 86-69. Tennessee saw its 19-game win streak snapped. Two days later, it saw itself fall out out of the top spot in the AP Top 25. And vowed revenge.

Two Saturdays later at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Blue didn’t get in. Once upon a time, so many Kentucky fans invaded Tennessee’s home, the school changed its ticket package. If you wanted to see UK-UT, you had to buy other UT games, as well. Not this year. March 2 included the smallest contingent of Kentucky fans inside Thompson-Boling in anyone’s memory. Tennessee rolled 71-52.

This Saturday could bring Round 3. If both Kentucky and Tennessee win their Friday night quarterfinal games, the two meet in a semifinal. On the line would be a championship game berth. So might a No. 1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

Fan support could be key. After jumping from 20th to eighth nationally in average home attendance last year at 16,120, Tennessee has averaged 19,034 this season. Eight of their 18 home games drew 20,000 or more including 21,729 for a venue that officially seats 21,678. Meanwhile, UK averaged 21,532 for its 17 home games. Only North Dakota (18,555) and Monmouth (18,680) drew less than 20,000. The Tennessee game drew 24,467 to a venue that officially seats 23,500.

So for Tennessee fans, the SEC Tournament is chasing history. In 1979, when the league hit the tournament restart button after a 26-year absence, Tennessee captured the title by beating UK 75-69 in overtime. The Vols haven’t won one since. They lost in the 1991 finals to Alabama and in the 2009 finals to Mississippi State.

For Kentucky fans, the SEC Tournament is a habit. Nineteen times they’ve cheered their Cats to the crown since the tourney’s revival. UK has won it five of the seven times the tournament has been held in the arena off Broadway.

It could be that enough Kentucky fans purchased tickets early enough to box out the Vols faithful come this weekend. Or it could be enough Tennessee fans planned ahead to make themselves be heard. One thing we do know. Music City is a great place for a show.

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