KNOXVILLE — Tennessee knocked 14th-seeded Mercer, the lowest seed remaining, out of the NCAA basketball tournament Sunday night.
Along with Dayton, the 11th-seeded Volunteers are among the lowest seeds left in the Big Dance.
Yet Tennessee, which faces second-seeded Big Ten regular-season champion Michigan in a Midwest Region semifinal Friday night in Indianapolis, is far from the Cinderella story the Bears became when they upset Duke on Friday.
"There really isn't no story here. We're supposed to be here," senior forward Jeronne Maymon said following the Vols' 83-63 win in Raleigh. "We've got one of the best teams in the nation [when] we just come out and play like it."
Tennessee certainly has done that in wins by 13, 19 and 20 points to reach the program's fourth Sweet 16 in eight seasons, and while the Vols have peaked at the right time by winning eight of nine games, it's hard to say they were under-seeded by the NCAA tournament selection committee.
The Vols were 2-7 against NCAA tournament teams, got swept by Texas A&M and lost games against Vanderbilt and UTEP. Yet here they are, one win away from the program's second Elite Eight appearance.
"Off the court, they've always had a great chemistry, a great togetherness," third-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday during an appearance on ESPNU. "On the court, I think it was just the adjustment of where I'm getting shots, who's getting the ball, is it my turn to score? In the midst of all that, we didn't defend, play hard and rebound consistently at a high level.
"We're doing that now, and guys are sharing the ball. I told the guys, 'You defend at the level we're capable of defending at, and your offense will go up.' Our assists have gone up and the turnovers have gone down, and now we're playing some great basketball."
After Tennessee's second loss to Texas A&M, Martin showed his players some clips of "One Shining Moment," the song-and-video montage CBS plays after each national championship game, and where they stood in ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi's NCAA tournament projections.
The coach also talked to the easygoing Josh Richardson, who's averaging 19.3 points on 60 percent shooting in the NCAA tournament, about taking his game more seriously.
After the Vols edged lowly Mississippi State by seven points, they held Vanderbilt to 38 and saw their defensive capabilities and the results they could bring, and many players have pointed to the defensive end as the foundation for this run.
"I knew it was a tough time," Martin said about that second loss to the Aggies. "It was a tough loss, an emotional loss. We got back the next day, we met as a staff, we met with our team and just talked about how we're right there. We actually showed them Lunardi's last four in as really kind of a gauge to say, 'We're right there, guys,' but these are the things we need to do to get to that next step.
"We also had a team meeting where there were some harsh things said amongst players, just talking about some things, things you need to do as a player in order to get better, and we had the staff in there. I think at that point we started to take that next step."
Per his contract, Martin will receive a bonus of $75,000 for the Sweet 16 run ($50,000 for making the NCAA tournament and another $25,000 for advancing this far), and he'd get another $25,000 for a win Friday.
After National Invitation Tournament appearances in his first two seasons, Martin was granted a $50,000 raise but not given an extension to his original five-year contract, and at $1.35 million per year he's currently the 11th-highest paid coach in the SEC, ahead of only LSU's Johnny Jones, A&M's Billy Kennedy and Mississippi State's Rick Ray.
This NCAA tournament run likely will change that, but the Vols aren't done yet.
"It's a surreal feeling," All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes said Sunday. "I said when Coach Martin and these guys started playing and myself came here, Tennessee basketball was dead. Now, to be back in the Sweet 16, it's a great feeling.
"I'm just looking forward to Michigan. I want to enjoy this win tonight, but Michigan is a very good team."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...