published Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Cool customers: Tennessee's hot streak anchored by calm coach

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    Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin yells to his team in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida on Tuesday in Knoxville.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WHAT'S LEFT

Tennessee's schedule between now and the SEC tournament, which begins in two weeks in Nashville.

• at Georgia (Saturday, 1:30 p.m.): The Bulldogs are better than their record would suggest and won in Knoxville three weeks ago, so this weekend's trip may the trickiest game left for the Vols.

• at Auburn (March 6, 9 p.m.): The Tigers, losers of 12 of 13 since a 2-0 SEC start, appear ready for the season to end after scoring 55 and and 43 in blowout losses at Ole Miss and at Alabama

• vs. Missouri (March 9, 4 p.m.): One of the SEC's preseason favorites, Missouri has just one win (Mississippi State) in six SEC road games entering tonight's game at South Carolina.

KNOXVILLE — The University of Tennessee players and coaches can expect to see their team's name on various NCAA tournament bubbles watches and lists for the near future.

To see their name pop up in the 68-team bracket on Selection Sunday in 18 days, the Volunteers know they must keep winning.

During its late-season surge, Tennessee's players have remained grounded, and the feel is the Vols are playing how they should have been all season.

"We've just got to make sure we're ready to play," point guard Trae Golden said after Tuesday's crucial win against eighth-ranked Florida. "I think everybody on this team understands that nothing's promised. We've just got to continue to win and continue to play together as a team."

The level of composure undoubtedly stems from coach Cuonzo Martin, who sounded the same in postgame interviews following his team's big wins against Florida and Kentucky as he did after the Vols' lost to Georgia and allowed 92 points to Ole Miss at home in the SEC opener.

"You can't get overemotional in certain situations," he said. "You've got to be even-keeled. But that's easier said than done."

Martin rarely changes his demeanor, and his team typically follows his lead.

"Everybody's still really locked in," said Jordan McRae, Tennessee's leading scorer. "You guys see our practices, the way Coach Martin is, you would think we hadn't won a game yet this year. That's just the way it's going to be, and I think Coach Martin does a really good job of making us realize we always have a game after this one."

With a six-game win streak, Tennessee has made the season's final three games important as the Vols chase seeding for the SEC tournament. The Vols also are chasing a possible NCAA at-large bid, something that seemed an impossibility only three weeks ago when Tennessee played rather listlessly in the home loss to the Bulldogs, who host the Vols in Athens on Saturday. Martin told his team then its problems were solvable, and as Golden and Jarnell Stokes simultaneously picked up their play, Tennessee took off.

McRae (27 points) handled the scoring load against Florida, but Stokes (14 rebounds) and Golden, who committed just two turnovers and outplayed Florida's Kenny Boynton, made key contributions to Tuesday's win in addition to scoring 16 points.

"I made the comment at SEC media day [in October] that I thought they should be the favorite to win the league," Gators coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't think there should be any question that they have unbelievable talent. Golden is as good of a point guard as there is, McRae has emerged to be, to me, maybe the best wing player in the league [and] Stokes is clearly one of the best frontcourt players."

Tennessee took advantage of its big opportunity on Tuesday, but the Vols know the momentum and increased exposure and NCAA tournament talk can evaporate quickly with a loss.

"I'll keep saying the same answer: we've won this one, and we're going to try to win the next one, then the next one," McRae said. "We're not looking at the SEC [standings]. We're not trying to find out what seed we think we're going to be.

"We're just trying to do everything we can with what we can control now. We can't control what the committee [does] or our seed in the SEC. We're just trying to do everything we can now."

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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