published Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Coach Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee Vols turn losses to progress

KNOXVILLE -- The humbling home loss to the smaller in-state school.

The woeful performance in the rematch with the cross-state rival.

The four-game losing streak early in conference play.

Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin's first season had the expected lows, yet the Volunteers enter the last week of the regular season with the opportunity to reach unexpected highs.

"It's tough to keep guys engaged when you're losing games," Martin said Monday. "I thought our guys did a really good job every day coming to practice with their hard hats on, continuing to get better. That's not easy, because losing can be discouraging, but I thought the guys did a tremendous job of staying the course.

"We're in a good place right now as a team because we continue to get better, and that's a good sign. I think more importantly the guys continue to work hard in practice, and even better, guys spend a lot of time on the individual skills in the a.m. and the p.m. hours when coaches aren't around. That's when you really start to make progress as a program."

The Vols play at LSU on Wednesday before hosting Vanderbilt on Saturday with the chance to reach 10 SEC wins. UT is tied for fourth in the league, and the possibility of a second-place finish or a first-round bye in the league's tournament in New Orleans next week exists with two wins and some help. With an RPI that jumped up 19 spots (from 111th to 92nd) and a strong finish, UT's NCAA tournament hopes aren't completely dead yet.

It's a testament to Martin's staff and players for even reaching such a position following a listless performance in an 18-point loss at Memphis on Jan. 4 and the 1-4 start in SEC play that ensued.

"It means a lot, just as far as we've come to now be here in this position," said sophomore point guard Trae Golden, the Vols' leading scorer. "I think it's just a lot of hard work, and it feels that much better.

"We definitely wouldn't be where we are without Coach Martin. Words can't even explain how he keeps us calm but keeps us motivated at the same time. He's the best coach I've ever had -- coach of the year, whatever you want to call it."

The lowest point in the Vols' season came when they fell to Austin Peay in Knoxville in December. Martin called it the "most humbling loss" of the season Monday and wondered aloud if the Vols were good enough to beat the Govs, who were 1-9 entering that game, on a neutral court.

"We weren't a very good team," he said.

Though it's the most damaging mark on UT's resume now, Martin believes some positives eventually emerged from that loss.

"I think that was a point," he said, "where our guys were, 'OK, now let's start to listen, let's really completely buy in to Coach,' because it was a humbling experience for our guys."

Martin admitted he wasn't sure if his team had a tough enough mindset to win at that point, though some players remained upbeat.

"I knew we were going to get better," said Jeronne Maymon, UT's leading rebounder and most consistent offensive threat. "I knew we were going to win games and upset some people. It was just a matter of time."

That time came in the Vols' surprising win against Florida in the SEC opener, which Martin said was the turning point. The Vols then realized they could be good if their play matched Martin's script of defensive intensity and effort. The hard work netted success that Saturday afternoon in early January, and UT's win against Connecticut two weeks later began the current stretch in which it has won eight of 11 games.

"We've gotten better each time -- each practice, each game," Maymon said. "Our unity has gotten better, and our chemistry has started to really come together."

At some points early in the season, with a tough schedule, new coaching staff and new players, it looked like that might not happen this season.

"We're still doing the same things we've been doing since day one," Martin said. "Guys have just gotten better at it. The blueprint is still the same.

"We didn't lack talent; I don't know that we had a level of toughness," Martin said. "We didn't have a level of team togetherness, a passion for one another. When you have that, you have results because you start to play together."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.

about Patrick Brown...

Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...

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