Vols’ Sweet 16 run built on Martin’s attention to defense, rebounding

The Tennessee Volunteers are headed for their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2010.

Rob Kinnan/Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Following the Tennessee Volunteers’ second loss of the season to lowly Texas A&M on Feb. 22, which dropped them to 7-7 in Southeastern Conference play, Coach Cuonzo Martin’s team sure appeared in need of a quick fix if it was going to make the NCAA Tournament.

Whatever the antidote for their inconsistent and sometimes lethargic play, the Vols are better now. They won four straight games before barely losing to top-ranked Florida in a SEC tourney semifinal, then parlayed that surge by winning three NCAA tourney games to land in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010.

"There’s no magic tricks," said Martin, whose 11th-seeded Vols (24-12) play No. 2 seed Michigan (27-8), the defending national runner-up, in a Midwest Region semifinal Friday night in Indianapolis, Ind.

After beating fellow No. 11 seed Iowa (78-65 in overtime) in the First Four, Tennessee followed that with convincing wins over 6-seed UMass (88-67) and 14-seed Mercer (83-62) to make the Sweet 16 round for the seventh time in program history.

"We haven’t changed anything," Martin said. "They just completely bought in and understood in order for us to be successful, this is what we have to do. And they’re doing it."

Final Four . . . for four

And what might that be?

"The biggest key, and I’ve said it all season long, defend, rebound, play hard," Martin said. "I say it all the time. That’s what I’m consumed with. The shots don’t fall, you defend, rebound, play hard. You give yourself a chance to win games. That’s what we’re doing."

Tennessee certainly has the rebounding part down.

In Sunday’s win over Mercer, which had previously upset second-seeded Duke, the Vols held a robust 41-19 rebounding edge. Forward Jarnell Stokes led the Vols with 18 rebounds, a school record for NCAA tourney play. Stokes also added 17 points, giving him 22 double-doubles for the season to tie the program record for a season set by legendary Bernard King in 1976-77. The junior finished second in the SEC and 10th in the nation in rebounding (10.3), followed by senior forward Jeronne Maymon (8.2) at third in the SEC and 77th nationally.

And he’s certainly enjoying playing in the NCAA Tournament for a first time under Martin, whose Vols didn’t make the field the past two seasons after going six straight times under previous coach Bruce Pearl.

FOUL BALL

"As a team, we’ve been doing that all year," Stokes said of the team’s third-ranked rebounding margin nationally. "I feel like now that it’s in the NCAA Tournament, it’s getting a lot more attention. We always feel like we control the boards. That’s one thing that I always go into the game trying to make my imprint on."

With the team being one of the nation’s best rebounding teams, Martin also feels the Vols now have another of his constants — team defense — down as well.

In wins over Iowa and UMass, the Vols held each team to season-low scoring in the first half at 22 and 26 points, respectively. Over its past eight games, Tennessee has held opponents to an average of 71 points per game. For the season, the Vols finished second in the SEC and 16th in the nation in scoring defense (61.1)

But the team’s key defender, junior guard Josh Richardson, has turned up his offense, too. He scored 17 points against Iowa, 15 vs. UMass, and then exploded for a career-high 29 against Mercer, including 16 in the first half when the Vols took control of the game.

"I do think sometimes he gets consumed with his challenges on the defensive side of the ball, shutting guys down," Martin said of Richardson, who has scored in double figures 21 times this season. "But he just made shots. He was assertive. He can score the ball. He can shoot pull-ups. He can make free throws."

In Michigan, the Volunteers play a team hungry to not only return to the Final Four but get another shot at the national championship as well. The Wolverines, led by sophomore guard Nik Stauskas and sophomore forward Glenn Robinson III, beat Wofford (57-40) and Texas (79-65) to make the Sweet 16. 

And while the Volunteers turn their attention to Michigan, they are also taking time to reflect on a season during which many of the program’s followers called for Martin’s firing. Some 36,000 signed a petition calling for Pearl, who was recently hired at Auburn, to return to the post from which he was fired in March 2011, for NCAA violations that later garnered a three-year suspension from coaching.

"Luckily for our guys, they stayed the course, didn’t get caught up in the negativity," Martin said, "and they continued to get better not only as basketball players, but as men. … That’s probably the biggest thing I’m proud of, and their love for each other has really grown as a unit."

As for being labeled a Cinderella story after barely getting into the NCAA tourney field, Maymon would have none of that.

"There isn’t really no story here," he said. "We’re supposed to be here. We got one of the best teams in the nation. We just come out and play like it. We’re one of the 16 still standing."