published Monday, March 5th, 2012

UT Vols making their case for NCAA tourney bid

KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin has been saying it for weeks.

Kentucky coach John Calipari reminded a national television audience on Sunday of what he said in January.

Others nationally now are taking notice of the late-season surge by the Volunteers, but whether or not the wave of sudden attention puts UT in the NCAA tournament is in the Vols' owns hands.

"You ask me, 'Are we an NCAA tournament team?' Yes," Martin reiterated Saturday after UT beat Vanderbilt for its eight win in nine games.

"Is there work to be done? I don't know, I'm not on the [selection] committee. We've got to continue to win ball games. You talk about however many at-large bids, is this an NCAA tournament team? There's no doubt in my mind."

Though the doubt seems to be decreasing in the minds of the national pundits, the Vols (18-13) can continue to bolster their resume for a potential at-large bid at the SEC tournament later this week in New Orleans. Top-ranked Kentucky's win at Florida on Sunday clinched the second seed for UT. The Vols will play either Ole Miss or Auburn on Friday night in a quarterfinal.

After the Wildcats won, Calipari -- Martin's top competition for the league's coach of the year honors -- pumped up UT unprompted in a postgame interview with CBS.

"Tennessee, I'm telling you," Calipari said. "I said it earlier, that's an NCAA tournament team."

It's a line Calipari used when the Vols pushed Kentucky in the teams' meeting in Knoxville in January. CBS analysts Greg Anthony and Seth Davis mentioned the Vols as being very much in the mix for the tournament. ESPN's Joe Lunardi, perhaps the most renowned bracketologist, had UT as one of his first four teams out of the tournament on Sunday.

"Just using the eye test, they're definitely one of the top 68 teams in the country," analyst Jimmy Dykes told the Times Free Press after calling UT's win on ESPN Saturday. "They play defense as well as anybody I've seen, and that's all because of Cuonzo Martin. The coaching job he's done with this team is off the charts. He's coached these players way up.

"The Tennessee program is in great hands whether they end up making the tournament or not. But if they get in they'll be a tough matchup for a lot of teams."

That UT even would have been in this discussion seemed impossible when the Vols were 1-4 in the SEC, but that's a distant memory given the Vols' recent play. UT has developed into the type of team Martin envisioned, one that relied on its tough man-to-man defense and played well together offensively. Not surprisingly, though, he said reaching 10 SEC wins wasn't something he expected.

"I'd be lying to you if I said that [I believed it was realistic]," he said. "We were just trying to find our way. But you know, if you work hard, things fall into place. It's not an easy thing to do.

"I'd like to think that the first day I took over, I was the head coach of this program. Maybe people on the outside didn't think that or didn't understand that, but once I took over the program, I was the head coach of the program until the casket or whatever the case may be. I said one day we'll be the last team standing, and I meant that when I said it."

Despite notching its third win against a team ranked in the top 25 of the all-important RPI rankings on Saturday, UT moved up only five spots to 75th. Alabama won 12 SEC games last season, but did not make the tournament because of a poor nonconference schedule and poor RPI (80). How the NCAA selection committee takes into account the addition of freshman Jarnell Stokes is another factor in UT's case for the tournament.

Regardless of its current status, UT heads to New Orleans with plenty at stake.

"It feels really good [to say that]," said point guard Trae Golden. "I think it feels better than anything else just because of what we came from. We're not the same team at all from the beginning of the season to now, but to say we've made such growth through such a small period of time, like I always say, the sky's the limit for us."

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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