KNOXVILLE - With each frustrating loss by Tennessee's basketball Volunteers this season, the grumbling from the fan base has increased in volume.
The Volunteers enter the penultimate week of the regular season with a 7-7 Southeastern Conference record and face an uphill climb to get an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament, the program's stated goal before the season, after Texas A&M completed a season sweep with an overtime win in College Station on Saturday.
While there is chatter regarding the job status of Cuonzo Martin, the Vols' third-year coach said at his weekly news conference on Monday that he blocks it out.
"Don't waste time and energy on it," he said. "The next game presents itself. Move forward.
"Been doing it for years," he continued. "For me, as a ballplayer and a coach, I've been consumed with what I need to do for years. If you put the work in, everything else takes care of itself. If it's negative, I don't consume myself with it."
And with each disappointing defeat, the palpable negativity surrounding Tennessee's program has increased.
The Vols returned a core that included All-SEC players in Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes and were picked to finish third in the league's preseason poll behind Florida and Kentucky.
With four games left before the SEC tournament in Atlanta, though, Tennessee is part of a seven-way tie for fourth in the SEC standings with Missouri, Ole Miss, LSU, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, and though the Vols seem to have an easier path out of that quagmire than the rest, this team has been inconsistent and unpredictable.
More importantly, Tennessee's NCAA tournament hopes took a big hit Saturday. The Vols have strong strength-of-schedule numbers and nonconference wins against Virginia and Xavier, but Xavier's Musketeers also are on the bubble and face a tough stretch to close Big East play. The two losses to Texas A&M should haunt the Vols come Selection Sunday.
"Our goal doesn't change as far as making the NCAA tournament," Martin said. "That doesn't change. I think there's some games we had an opportunity to win we came up short in, but that goal doesn't change at all."
Missing the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive year -- after making the field six straight seasons under popular former coach Bruce Pearl -- could mean Tennessee has a decision to make at the end of the season.
Martin is in a five-year deal he signed when he was hired from Missouri State to replace Pearl, who was fired after lying to the NCAA about minor recruiting violations and eventually landed a three-year show-cause penalty. But Martin was not given an extension -- only a $50,000 raise -- after his second season.
Former Tennessee coaches Wade Houston (47-51, 21-31) and Buzz Peterson (47-42, 23-25) registered worse overall and SEC records after the third seasons of their respective tenures than Martin, who is 55-39 overall with a 28-20 conference mark, but both coaches got a fourth and Houston a fifth season with the Vols.
If the university and athletic director Dave Hart do elect to make a change, Martin would be owed 60 percent of the two years left on his $1.35-million-a-year contract, or roughly $1.62 million.
"I talk to Dave all the time, and the thing we talk about is each particular game," Martin said when asked about his relationship with Hart, who was hired six months after Martin. "Dave does a good job, win or lose, texting or calling just about the game. Other than that, not at all. We just talk about basketball."
There's still plenty of that left to be played between now and the unveiling of the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket for the Vols, who visit Mississippi State on Wednesday and host Vanderbilt on Saturday, when Tennessee will retire Dale Ellis' No. 14 to the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters.
The players don't appear affected by all the external chatter about their coach and their season, and Martin said he talked to them about managing distractions even long before the season tipped off.
"As a coach, there's things that we always talk about," he said, "but you know, as young guys they read what they want to read. They'll see stuff on campus, and that's part of it. You control it as much as you can control it as a coach and make the guys understand, 'Consume yourself with your teammates and the task at hand.'
"The next game, learn from the last game, win or lose, and that's all you can do as a coach."
And that's all Martin plans to do.
"For us, it's winning basketball games," he said, "and the most important game is Mississippi State."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.