Vols hoping strong finish leaves them dancing

Cuonzo Martin thinks Tennessee is worthy of the NCAA tournament. So does Kentucky’s John Calipari and a slew of the first-year coach’s other colleagues.

He’s fully aware, though, that one no-show performance at this weekend’s SEC Tournament in New Orleans will promptly wash away any thought of the Volunteers advancing to the Big Dance.

Winners of four straight and eight of their last nine games after a 68-61 victory over Vanderbilt in their regular-season finale, the Volunteers are peaking at the right time. Their strong finish earned them a first-round bye in the single-elimination conference tournament and gave Martin a second-place finish in his first year as an SEC coach.

That impressive ending to the regular season, though, has yet to give the Volunteers a guaranteed spot in the NCAA Tournament, a prospect they would have been laughed at for entertaining just a few months ago.

“We’re changing the culture and defining what we expect,” Martin said. “That’s not an easy thing to do. But what gets overlooked is that you’re talking about guys who didn’t play a prominent role at this level.”

As the No. 2 seed, the Volunteers line up on the opposite side of the bracket from No. 1 Kentucky and play either Auburn or Ole Miss on Friday. Win that game, and they could face Vanderbilt, Georgia or Mississippi State in the semifinals before a likely finals matchup with Kentucky.

Two wins very well could put Tennessee in the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid. Anything less will make the NIT the most likely destination.

“We’re not the same team that lost at the beginning of the season compared to now,” point guard Trae Golden said. “To say we’ve made such a considerable growth in such a small period of time, I just think the sky’s the limit.”

NOTES, QUOTES

-Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said he has no regrets about playing all of the tough games that were placed on the Volunteers’ non-conference schedule before he took the job. The Volunteers are still recovering RPI-wise from their losses at Oakland and at College of Charleston, games that many major programs wouldn’t entertain playing. The Volunteers also lost games to Duke and Memphis at the Maui Invitational. Martin, though, said the early adversity paved the way for Tennessee to find late-season success.

“You are out the gates with one of the best schedules in America,” Martin said. “Some people said maybe we shouldn’t have gone to Maui or played some of those road games, but I think it helps your character and your level of toughness. I had no doubt in my mind we were going to play those games. But I just think you have to go through with it. We were trying to guess right along with the players. They were trying to figure us out as coaches and we were trying to figure them out as players.”

-Hours before Tennessee’s season finale against Vanderbilt, star freshman Jarnell Stokes came down with a fever and was doubting whether he’d be able to contribute. Tennessee’s staff pumped him up with liquids and got him ready to go just in time for the Saturday afternoon tip. He responded with an 11-point, 14-rebound, five-block effort in 28 minutes of action.

“He is a tough kid but the thing that helps is that he has such a pace to his game,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “He is not all over the place, he’s not wild. He’s under control. He gathers rebounds and he’s a physical presence. He’s a tough kid. But because of his pace he’s able to make adjustments.”

-Thompson-Boling Arena is one of the biggest and loudest arenas in all of college basketball. It was exactly that way Saturday against Vanderbilt, when more than 22,000 fans packed it to its brim. The strongest turnout of the season helped solidify another top-10 national ranking in average attendance for Tennessee. The Volunteers rank fifth in the nation with an average of 17,411.

“Tremendous atmosphere,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “There is maybe a handful, if that, of atmospheres I’ve been a part of. There was a lot of orange. There were about 100 people that will have to run those sprints for not wearing that orange.”

THIS WEEK’S GAMES

vs. Ole Miss/Auburn, SEC Tournament, at New Orleans, March 9

KEY MATCHUPS: The Volunteers were triumphant in both of their games this season with these SEC West foes. They limited the Tigers to just 49 points by completely shutting down their offensive attack and held Ole Miss to just 60 points. Each team’s swingman gave the Volunteers the most problems. Rebels SF Terrance Henry (15 points) gave the Volunteers the most problems while F Kenny Gabriel led the way for the Tigers.

FUTURES MARKET

Freshman F Yemi Makanjuola continues to learn the game of basketball through trial and error. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin likes his effort, though, and that’s why he continues to play the freshman during important times in games. Makanjuola was on the court for just 12 minutes in Tennessee’s overtime win over LSU on Wednesday, but was able to pick up five fouls. He saw the court for just four minutes in Saturday’s win against Vanderbilt and picked up two fouls. With a lack of size on the bench, Tennessee will continue to go to Makanjuola during moments when Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes need a breather and Martin wants to maintain some size on the court.

PLAYER NOTES

-PF Kenny Hall remains suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. Hall has not been seen at any games since Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin announced the suspension last month. Hall, one of the Volunteers’ first bigs off the bench, has missed six games.

-PG Trae Golden, after making all eight of his free-throw attempts in Saturday’s win over Vanderbilt, now leads the SEC with an 85.6 percent accuracy rate from the foul line.

QUOTE TO NOTE

“There is a lot more work left to do so we can’t get too excited about it. We have to go the SEC Tournament with the same hunger and the same fight. It is a testament to how hard we fought and the ways our guys came in and practiced every day to get better. It is a beautiful thing when hard work does pay off.” — Tennessee SF Cam Tatum, on the Vols’ strong finish to the regular season.