By Steve Williams

Give Cuonzo Martin credit. The embattled University of Tennessee basketball coach didn’t let himself get caught up in all that negativity. He kept his eye on the prize and his players followed suit.

As I write this on Friday night, the Vols are coming off NCAA tournament wins over Iowa and UMass and looking forward to a Round of 32 game against Mercer Sunday in Raleigh.

Most UT fans had been hoping for a shot against Duke, but Mercer took care of the Blue Devils prior to the Vols eliminating the Minutemen.

So, the Tennessee-Mercer survivor will advance to the Sweet Sixteen in the second weekend of the Big Dance.

If you’re a true Tennessee fan, how could you not be pleased with the Vols’ late-season surge?

If you’re still pointing to next season and forecasting gloom and doom for the Vols under Martin, obviously you haven’t learned anything.

It’s very simple. Let a season play out. There’s always plenty of time to gripe and call for a coach’s job after the final horn.

College basketball is a long season and usually includes peaks and valleys. Sometimes you have to hang on tight and ride it out.

It is also a tournament sport. Granted, for most of the season, this veteran Tennessee team wasn’t playing up to expectations. But the Vols didn’t quit. They came on strong down the stretch and just made it into the NCAA field of 68.

Had Coach Martin’s team not made it in, then Athletic Director Dave Hart would have had a tough decision to make.

Hart now only needs to boost Cunozo’s pay to reflect his third-place standing in winning percentage among SEC coaches.

As for next season, I have an idea for all those who like to take part in petitions. Start one to encourage Jarnell Stokes to come back next year. Butch can do his part too, by giving the big guy a tryout on the football team, if he’s really serious about it.

A big part in this season’s off-the-court drama also played out last week as Bruce Pearl, the popular former UT coach, accepted Auburn’s offer to be its new coach.

Give Auburn AD Jay Jacobs credit. He made a great hire. As good a promoter as he is a coach, Bruce is a perfect fit for the Tigers’ program, which is in dire need of an infusion of energy and excitement. As we have seen, that’s right down Pearl’s alley.

I must admit I was a little saddened when I heard the news last Tuesday that Pearl had accepted the Auburn job. That feeling had nothing to do with Cuonzo. I’m proud he’s our coach. It was the memories of Pearl’s early years at Tennessee rushing back.

The eye-opening win at Texas. Turning over the opposition with Controlled Chaos. His sweat-soaked suit in a big win in The Swamp. A first-ever No. 1 national ranking and first SEC championship in 41 years..Knocking on the door of the Final Four. A painted up Pearl in the stands and Pat singing Rocky Top.

The memories will last, but he’s gone for good. The finality of it brought sadness to a lot of Tennessee fans.

Many have said in recent months that the UT administration would not have considered bringing Pearl back, even if Martin’s third season had been a bust and he was fired. I have no proof that would have been the case. We’ll never know for sure. It’s a moot point anyway.

I do admire Auburn’s administration for giving Pearl a second chance to coach again. I believe that’s the fair thing to do. Come August, he will have paid for his NCAA sins. In everything I’ve heard and read, he seems to be sincere in his remorse.

Pearl wants to become Auburn’s winningest coach ever. And he wants to clear his name.

Won’t next season’s game here against Auburn be something.

UT fans should give Bruce a warm welcome.

Then cheer like heck for Cuonzo and the Vols.