By Alex Norman
A couple of weeks ago in this column I lamented the state of Tennessee men’s basketball.
Today I stand before you a changed writer.
But I think that I had pretty good reasons for questioning the excitement level around the Vols program.
Back on February 9th the Vols stood at 11-10 on the season with zero road victories for their trouble (UT did beat UNC-Asheville and UMass on a neutral court in Puerto Rico). Not only was the NCAA tournament out of the question, but the NIT seemed to be a long shot as well.
Thompson-Boling Arena can be an unfeeling, cold cave (even after renovations that took place a few years back) when the Vols aren’t playing well, and that was certainly the case on February 6th when Tennessee lost to Georgia at home. The official attendance was 14,876 but that certainly wasn’t the total number of people in the seats for that weeknight affair.
It wasn’t the doldrums of the Buzz Peterson era (those were the 2001-2005 seasons… Rest in Peace), when the upper deck folks waited for the public address announcer to say that it was ok for them to sit in the lower bowl after the first media timeout. But it wasn’t good, and the thrill from the Bruce Pearl era (2005-2011… Rest in Peace) had passed as well.
But a funny thing happened on the way to mediocrity.
The Vols… became interesting again.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin seems to want a patient, traditional half-court game, and places more of an emphasis on defense than Pearl did. Pearl’s teams were best in semi-controlled chaos. The same frustration Vols fans felt when UT would give up an easy basket in transition would be paid back two-fold with a dunk or a pull-up trey.
That brand of basketball worked at a football-first school. This was a place where basketball was pretty much an after-thought when Doug Dickey was Tennessee athletic director. Only after Pearl arrived and had such unexpected and unprecedented success was a much need practice facility constructed.
But Martin, as good coaches do, has adjusted his team to the strengths of his roster. No one will ever compare these Vols to the Loyola-Marymount squads of the late 1980s/early 1990s, but with junior Jordan McRae coming into his own as one of the best players in the conference, and with opponents double teaming sophomore Jarnell Stokes on a consistent basis, something had to change for Tennessee to make anything out of this season.
The loss of senior Jeronne Maymon to injury cannot be overstated. Martin and his coaching staff held out hope that he could return at some point, and they didn’t adjust well to his absence. Maymon took pressure of Stokes, and helped his teammates get jump shots without a defender in their faces.
With Maymon, this is a Sweet 16 kind of team. He’ll be returning next season. If Stokes and McRae both come back, and with 5-star recruit shooting guard Robert Hubbs III coming to Knoxville next season, it could be a very special season in 2013-2014.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
Road wins at South Carolina (February 10th) and Vanderbilt (February 13th) made some news, but it wasn’t until a historic home win over rival Kentucky on February 16th that people started to believe in this team. Tennessee beat John Calipari’s squad 88-58 and I’m not sure the game was even that close. It was the biggest win for the Vols over the Wildcats in the history of a series that dates back to 1910.
Then there was a win over LSU, a four overtime defeat of Texas A&M in College Station (the longest game ever played by the Vols) and yet another Tennessee win over Florida. The Gators were ranked 8th in the country at the time.
As dominating as the Gators have been against the Vols since 2005? Tennessee has been almost as dominant against Florida in men’s basketball during that same time span.
And now this is a Tennessee team that has a legitimate chance at making it to the NCAA tournament. They probably missed the field of 68 by a single overtime loss in the SEC tournament against Ole Miss a year ago, and don’t want to leave anything to chance this time around.
The Vols are running more, playing looser; they have their junior floor leader Trae Golden healthy again, and could make some noise in the postseason if they get the right matchups in the NCAA tournament.
The only question is… can they get there?
At the least they are entertaining again… which is why you’ll have a packed house for the final home game on Sunday against Missouri, which could end up being a de-facto play-in game for the NCAA’s.