The Volunteers (24-12) have been playing with virtually no margin for error since late February, after they split their first 14 Southeastern Conference games. That made them primed for the postseason by the time they were awarded an NCAA bid.
The 11th-seeded Vols are streaking into Friday’s Midwest Regional semifinal against No. 2 seed Michigan (27-8) with eight wins in their last nine games. After beating Iowa in the First Four, Tennessee ousted No. 6 seed Massachusetts and No. 14 seed Mercer.
“I think it did a good job of just putting us on edge every day,” Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said. “I think we kind of had an advantage going into the Iowa game because we’d been playing the do-or-die games for a couple of weeks at that point.”
The Vols dismiss the notion that their rise from the First Four to the regional semifinals is a Cinderella story, but they’ve enjoyed responding to the skepticism that surrounded them much of the season.
“I wouldn’t call us a Cinderella because we have guys who were highly recruited out of high school, and we have veterans,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said. “I wouldn’t call us a Cinderella, but it’s definitely motivation that people have doubted us. We’ve been in so many close games this year, and we just haven’t found a way to win up until now. This is the right time to be winning.”
One month ago, Tennessee was 16-11 and in danger of missing the NCAA tournament. Critics of Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin had even started an online petition to bring back former coach Bruce Pearl, who has since been hired at Auburn. The Vols used that talk as motivation.
“We’re just fighting for each other, fighting for our coach through all this,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said. “We just make sure we stay together as a family throughout this.”
Tennessee now looks like a completely different team. The Vols’ last eight wins have been decided by an average margin of 20.9 points.
In their tournament opener, the Vols trailed Iowa most of the way before rallying for a 78-65 overtime victory that ended their season-long habit of losing close games. Tennessee followed that up with an 86-67 trouncing of Massachusetts and an 83-63 blowout of Mercer.
Stokes has averaged 20.3 points and 15 rebounds in three tournament games. Richardson has scored 19.3 points per game in the tournament after averaging 9.2 points per game beforehand. Senior point guard Antonio Barton hasn’t committed a turnover in the tournament. Tennessee has outrebounded tournament foes by an average of 11 boards per game.
“I do think it was nerves the first 10 minutes of that (Iowa) game, just (thinking), ‘Man, we are in the NCAA tournament,’” Martin said. “We didn’t flow right defensively. We lost assignments, and then once we settled down and especially got that thing in overtime, we started to play well, and we’ve been playing well ever since.”
The change in Tennessee’s fortunes has introduced a different side of Martin. For much of the season, fans grumbled on talk radio and message boards that Martin didn’t show enough emotion, particularly in comparison to the gregarious Pearl. But he’s let a little more of his personality show lately.
Late in the regular season, Martin sang a few bars of “One Shining Moment” while talking to reporters about how he played that song for his team to remind them the NCAA tournament remained within reach. And as Tennessee celebrated its victory over Mercer, Martin captured the moment by taking a selfie of the team and putting it on his Twitter account.
Martin claimed he had never taken a selfie before someone brought up the idea Sunday night.
“My daughter has taken 1,000 of them,” Martin said, “but not me.”