KNOXVILLE — This has been a strange season for Tennessee men’s basketball.

Ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation this year, the Vols have beaten some of the elite teams in the sport, like Kansas, Texas and No. 1 Alabama. They’ve also had inexplicable losses to mediocre Colorado and Florida squads, and blew late leads to lose at the buzzer against Vanderbilt and Missouri … in consecutive games!

But none of that matters anymore. Thanks to a dominating performance in the 2nd round against Duke, the 4 seed Vols have advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 9th time in program history.

If you are a Tennessee basketball fan, you probably know that the Vols have only been to the Elite 8 once. If they are going to get to the Regional Final, they have to beat Florida Atlantic University on Thursday night in midtown Manhattan.

That means that this … is FAU hate week.

But does anyone actually hate Florida Atlantic University?

I will admit, I am not well-versed in Conference USA rivalries. For all I know, North Texas students steal the FAU Owl the night before a big game.

So what do we even know about FAU? Well, their website does its job … making that school sound like the place we should have each attended.

“Spanning 110 miles of Southeast Florida’s coast, FAU fosters a vibrant culture that encourages ingenuity and independence. Determination runs deep at FAU, and students learn early that if they dream it — we’ve got the tools to help them achieve it.”

I’m sold. When can I take the ACT? Will may YMCA membership transfer to Boca Raton?

Of course, I’m burying the lede here. In this case, the Lane Kiffin connection is as good a reason as any for some good ol’ fashioned sports hate for Tennessee fans.

Kiffin spent nearly 14 months as the Vols football coach before leaving in flames with his unexpected departure on Jan. 12, 2010.

That night, Tennessee students tried to get inside the UT football complex and set a mattress on fire outside in protest.

Later, paperwork was filed to rename the waste water treatment plant near the UT campus the “Lane Kiffin Sewage Center.” (That application was denied).

A local firearms store tried to hold a fundraiser for charity in which people could plop down 5 bucks to shoot live rounds at Lane or Monte Kiffin bobbleheads. (That fundraiser was canceled.)

Lane’s decision to leave UT was the spark that set Tennessee off on over a decade in the college football wilderness.

While the smoke from those fires (real and metaphorical) eventually dissipated, Lane Kiffin has remained Public Enemy No. 1 in Knoxville. Fans typically don’t throw golf balls at people they like, as happened at Neyland Stadium in 2021.

Tennessee fans laughed when Kiffin struggled at Southern Cal, and loved to hear the story of his firing on the tarmac in 2013. He’d rehabilitate his career by spending 3 seasons as Alabama’s offensive coordinator before becoming the head coach … at FAU.

In fact, Kiffin got under Nick Saban’s skin so much during that time that Lane was told to go to Boca the week before the 2016 national championship game, a decision which might have cost Saban that Playoff title.

Kiffin did put FAU on the map, though. While Tennessee struggled at the end of the Butch Jones era and beginning of the Jeremy Pruitt regime, the Owls went 26-13 under Kiffin.

The Vols were mostly a mess … and Lane was having the time of his life, winning games and getting a tan while reeling in big catches.

Of course, Lane left Boca after the 2019 season and is the coach at Ole Miss. But for Tennessee fans, seeing Lane succeed at FAU (albeit against lesser competition) was like seeing an old girlfriend that broke your heart now happy and sailing with John Stamos.

Tennessee fans don’t need a reason to hate Florida Atlantic University. Much like Michael Jordan found any reason to motivate himself, #VolTwitter will manufacture a scenario in which they’ve hated the Owls for decades.

But you know that this week Lane won’t be able to help himself. He will tweet something about Thursday’s game and how he’s rooting for Tennessee. Or rooting for FAU. Or maybe he shows up at Madison Square Garden wearing a jersey with half Vols and half Owls logos.

Yes, indeed … it’s FAU hate week.