THE CASE FOR THE DANCE
If Cuonzo Martin served as the one-man selection committee for the NCAA tournament, Tennessee's basketball coach would include his team among the 37 teams that receive at-large bids. "There's still work to be done," he said Thursday. "You put the resume against anybody, I think you are one of the teams, especially when you're talking about a great league and you've got the best team in America in your league." Martin's praise for top-ranked Kentucky aside, the Vols' postseason resume might not match their strong finish to the season, though a win Saturday against Vanderbilt (RPI: 21) could help tremendously.
Strength of schedule: 34th
Nonconference strength of schedule: 136th
Road/Neutral Record: 3-10
vs. RPI Top 25: 2-6
vs. RPI Top 50: 3-7
vs. RPI 51-100: 2-2
vs. RPI 101-199: 7-4
vs. RPI 200+: 4-0
vs. Non-Division I: 1-0
Best wins by RPI: Florida (20) twice, Connecticut (36)
Worst losses by RPI: Austin Peay (191), Oakland (132), College of Charleston (110)
Conference RPI ranking: 4th
Last 10 games: 8-2
NOTE: All RPI and SOS numbers are according to CBS Sports' rankings. Wins against non-Division I teams are not counted for postseason purposes.
KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee enters March playing its best team basketball of the season.
Look no further than Wednesday night for proof.
The Volunteers needed contributions from different players at different times in erasing a 15-point first-half deficit in an eventual overtime road win at LSU that sustained their hopes of postseason play and the second seed in next week's Southeastern Conference tournament.
"Everybody stepped up, especially on the defensive end," forward Jeronne Maymon said before Thursday's practice. "We fought really hard to get those stops. We executed our offense. Everybody was hitting shots, and they had the confidence to hit those shots.
"I think everybody really stepped up and showed their hearts."
After LSU made 52 percent of its shots in the first half, the Vols (17-13, 9-6) limited the Tigers to 35 percent in the second half, including a stretch of 3:37 to end regulation and 3:56 to start overtime in which LSU did not make a field goal.
"We're playing well," first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said. "I think [wins in] eight of the last 10, if I'm not mistaken. That's a good ballclub in the SEC. I don't know how many teams can say it in this league. We're playing good basketball."
The Tigers' frontcourt used its size and physical ability to limit the Vols' inside tandem of Maymon and freshman Jarnell Stokes in the opening half, but UT, despite nine turnovers, remained within striking distance with key baskets. Dwight Miller and Skylar McBee both made 3-pointers, and Jordan McRae tallied seven first-half points.
It was Maymon's and Stokes' turn in the second half, as the duo combined for 26 of UT's 36 points after halftime. Stokes hit all six of his shots, and Maymon made eight of 10 free throws for his 14 points.
That left Cameron Tatum and Trae Golden to hit the big shots in overtime. Golden, who had five first-half turnovers, converted a go-ahead three-point play with 1:27 remaining and iced the game with six free throws. Tatum drilled a 3-pointer from the corner on UT's first overtime position for the Vols' first lead of the game.
"Coach Martin talked to us about the dribble play for Jeronne to drive to the basket," said the senior, who made a running hook shot in the lane that pushed UT's lead back to three following Golden's clutch play. "He told me, 'Cam, be ready because the shot may come to you. Have your hands ready to shoot the ball.' I just let it fly."
As the Vols continued to buy into Martin's philosophy of intense effort defensively, the offensive continuity came together as UT went 7-1 in February. Four players reached double figures in wins against Florida, Arkansas and Ole Miss, and five players scored seven or more points in the win at South Carolina. Stokes, Maymon and Golden scored in double figures Wednesday night, and McRae and Tatum had nine points apiece.
"I think we're really playing real good team ball right now," Maymon said, "because everybody knows their roles, what they're capable of and what they're good at. I think that really helps us. We know our strengths, and we know how to enhance those strengths as a team."
Martin said it took his team most of the season to jell as a unit, learn how to play together and experience various situations.
"I go back to the fact that it was such a tough preseason schedule out of the gates," he said. "You had so many unproven guys so you couldn't identify two or three guys and say, 'This is how we'll get our offense to flow through these guys.' We couldn't determine that, so let's wait and see and see who steps to the plate.
"It takes time to get guys to play hard all the time and understand and sell yourself to the team and what it means to be successful as a unit and not worry about your stats."
If Wednesday night was indication, the Vols have reached that point heading into the most important time of the season.