KNOXVILLE — It all started eight nights ago.
It very well could have ended then, too.
Tennessee's NCAA tournament run encountered some trouble on the runway against Iowa in the "First Four" game in Dayton last Wednesday, but once the Volunteers took care of those problems, they took off and now are flying into Friday night's Sweet 16 game against Michigan in Indianapolis off two comfortable wins.
"I think it was great to get that win against Iowa. Now let's play basketball," third-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said Tuesday. "I do think there were nerves the first 10 minutes of that game, just 'Man, we're in the NCAA tournament. Guys were looking like, 'OK, you shoot it. What are we doing? You get the shot.'
"We didn't flow right defensively. We lost assignments. Once we settled down, and especially got that thing in overtime, we started to play well, and we've been playing well ever since."
It seems much further away than eight days, but Tennessee looked out of place as Iowa scored the first eight points of the game and led 16-4 barely eight minutes into the game.
The Hawkeyes led by around that many for most of the first half until the Vols closed the first half on a 7-0 run to trail by just three points.
After the eventual 78-65 overtime win, Tennessee players pointed to the nerves and jitters that accompanied that slow start.
Yet the Vols settled into the game in the second half, stayed within striking distance, got the game into an extra session and outscored Iowa 14-1 in it.
"I feel like we got back to playing the way we play," All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes said. "We got a lot of key stops, and the energy was there. Guys hit shots, and it basically led into the next game."
Against Massaschusetts two days later, Tennessee jumped out to a 21-8 lead as the Minutemen, in their first tournament in 16 years, missed some close-range shots and cruised to a 19-point victory.
The Vols scored seven points in less than two minutes in their next game against Mercer, and after the upstart Bears tied the game, Tennessee took over and led by double digits essentially the rest of the way.
On Tuesday, multiple players pointed to that Iowa win as a springboard for the next two legs of the run.
"It just gave us a confidence boost, because I think we held them to one point in overtime," guard Josh Richardson said. "We're a defensive-oriented team, and to be able to hold a team that scores like Iowa to one point in five minutes or however long it was, that's a big thing."
It's probably helped, too, that Tennessee's path has gotten easier since that win.
Despite its poor finish in Big Ten Conference play, Iowa might have been the most talented team the Vols have faced on its path to the Sweet 16. The Hawkeyes had length, athleticism and depth and mixed a trapping halfcourt defense with a zone that had Tennessee on its heels early in the game.
Iowa also was playing for its coach, Fran McCaffery, whose son underwent surgery to remove a malignant thyroid tumor the morning of the game in Dayton.
"The season would have been over," Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "The Iowa game, I think it tested us good for the other two games that we have played."
The Wolverines, though, certainly will be a step up in competition for Tennessee.
After losing to Louisville in last season's national championship game, Michigan lost guards Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to the NBA -- Burke was taken ninth by the Utah Jazz and Hardaway 24th by the New York Knicks.
Center Mitch McGary, who returned to school instead of entering the NBA draft after his freshman season, played in just eight games and underwent back surgery in January.
Yet coach John Beilein's team recovered and rode a guard-oriented lineup led by Nik Stauskas to the regular season title in the rugged Big Ten.
"They're a talented team, and you can't take anything away from Iowa or UMass," Martin said. "I think those games we played well, and the same way with Mercer. It's unfortunate, I don't think Mercer will get -- well ... maybe if they hadn't played we Duke and we'd have beat them, then there would have been questions.
"But Mercer's a really good team, a team that executes as well as anybody in the country as far as their offensive efficiency. Michigan's a very talented team, but I think at this point, they're all good. It's what you do, who imposes their will and finding ways to win games down the stretch."
Doing that against Iowa helped propel Tennessee to this point.
"I think it gave us a lot of momentum," Richardson said. "I think everybody was just kind of relieved to get that first win out of the way for the NCAA tournament. I could definitely tell we've loosened up since then."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...