Where Does Tennessee's Win Against Duke Rank Among All-Time Vol Victories?
Tennessee’s win over Duke in Round 2 of the NCAA tournament was huge for many reasons: the Vols have been to precious few Sweet 16s, UT and Duke were seen as programs trending in opposite directions, and Rick Barnes was in danger of yet another disappointing March exit. Duke might not be what they have been historically, but they did win the ACC tournament, and they're as blue a blue-blood program as it gets. Yet Tennessee set a physical tone early and rode a phenomenal second-half effort by Olivier Nkamhoua to clinch what some have called the biggest win in Tennessee history.
But was it? It was certainly significant, and it has to be in the conversation. But what is the biggest win in Tennessee basketball history? With opportunities for even bigger wins still ahead for the Vols, a proper ranking needs to wait until this season is over. In the meantime, I’ve delved into the record books and identified contenders for Greatest Win in Tennessee History, and I’m listing them below in chronological order.
A couple of caveats. Some of these wins will not rank in the top wins all-time when it’s all said and done. None of us were around to see UT cut down the peach baskets after beating Mississippi College in 1922 and as such cannot really rank its significance against modern games. But I did try to take into account games from throughout UT’s history to at least lend some context to where UT basketball has come from.
I've tried to base this preliminary list on games that are milestones in Tennessee basketball: either games that represent firsts for the program, or first-in-a-long-times, or springboard games--those that lead to something great. Also, we play Kentucky a lot, and they are often ranked in the top 10 or top 5 when we play, and we win a good amount of those games. They can't all be the Biggest Win Ever, as much as I'd like them all to be.
Finally, there are some memorable wins that I left off this list. the 1992-93 team in a span of 3 games beat #13 Arkansas and #2 Kentucky--the latter off of an intentionally missed free throw and put back by Allan Houston. That's probably a top-5 memorable game in my lifetime. But the Vols went just 13-17 that year, 4-12 in the SEC. As glorious as that win over the Cats is in my mind, it just can't qualify as Biggest Ever.
- 2/25/1922: Tennessee 19, Mississippi College 18--this SIAA Conference tournament victory is the first postseason win in UT history
- 3/2/1936: Tennessee 29, Alabama 25--Tennessee wins its first SEC Tournament championship (and beat Kentucky in the semifinals)
- 2/19/1945: Tennessee 38, Alabama 27--UT clinches the SEC regular-season title and earns a bid to the NIT, their first-ever national tournament invite
- 1/14/1950: Tennessee 60, #2 Kentucky 53--the AP had just started ranking teams the year before, but this was Tennessee's third crack at a ranked UK... the win would lead to UT's first national ranking, debuting at #17 the following week
- 12/28/1956: #12 Tennessee 70, Arizona 66--the Vols would spend few weeks in the interim ranked, but this dub over a different group of Wildcats marked Tennnessee's first win as a ranked team
- 3/5/1966: Tennessee 69, #1 Kentucky 62--Tennessee's first win against a number-1 ranked team, and it couldn't have come against a better opponent... it's also worth pointing out how hard NCAA bids were to come by at this time, the '66 Vols finished 3rd in the SEC but couldn't sniff the tournament
- 3/6/1967: Tennessee 78, Mississippi State 76--UT clinched the SEC title, a top 10 ranking, and the school's first NCAA tournament bid
- 3/3/1979: Tennessee 75, Kentucky 69--Tennessee wins the SEC tournament and won't repeat this feat for a very long time
- 3/9/1979: Tennessee 97, Eastern Kentucky 81--UT's first NCAA tournament win
- 2/28/1999: Tennessee 68, #13 Kentucky 61--the Vols clinch the SEC East and are propelled to their first NCAA bid in a decade and first top-20 final ranking in 20 years
- 3/19/2000: Tennessee 65, UConn 51--Tennessee reaches its first Sweet 16 since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985
- 12/17/2006: Tennessee 95, #6 Texas 78--UT goes to Austin and puts the nation on notice in Bruce Pearl's first season in Knoxville
- 1/21/2007: Tennessee 80, #2 Florida 76--Also in Pearl's first year, Tennessee set the tone for an SEC East-winning season by downing the Gators in Gainesville
- 2/23/2008: #2 Tennessee 66, #1 Memphis 62--Tennessee earns its first-ever number one national ranking after beating their cross-state rival on the road
- 1/10/2010: #16 Tennessee 76, #1 Kansas 68--Tennessee gets plenty of shots against Kentucky, but it's rare when the chance to take down another traditional blue blood comes along
- 3/26/2010: Tennessee 76 Ohio State 73--for the first time ever, Tennessee advances to the Elite Eight over tOSU and their national player of the year, Evan Turner
- 1/23/2019: #1 Tennessee 88, Vanderbilt 83 (OT)--Tennessee lost its first #1 ranking in 2008 when they dropped a game in America's Worst Gym (TM), but this time they defended that rank on the back of Grant Williams
- 3/24/2019: Tennessee 83, Iowa 77 (OT)--Rick Barnes leads UT to the first Sweet 16 in his tenure on Rocky Top
- 3/13/2022: Tennessee 65, Texas A&M 50--Tennessee wins its first SEC Tournament title since 1979...the 69-62 semifinal game against Kentucky would also be a contender here
- 3/18/2023: Tennessee 65, Duke 52--with the odds seemingly stacked against them, Tennessee reaches another Sweet 16 (and beyond perhaps...)