KNOXVILLE - The public criticism of Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin for the Volunteers' inconsistency and disappointments this season surfaced as a topic of conversations during a couple of player interviews following Saturday's 72-45 rout of Missouri.
And the Vols had some strong thoughts on the subject.
Though a couple of players said a couple of weeks ago, after Tennessee lost to Texas A&M for the second time this season, that they paid no attention the external chatter and negativity swirling around Martin and the program, but in this day and age, it's impossible for them to ignore it completely.
They've known it was there, and they appeared ready to talk about it on Saturday.
"Coach, he's been receiving a lot of heat from the media and all that, but he's stayed the same throughout this whole thing," point guard Antonio Barton said. "Even with all the stuff that was being said about him, he told us, 'Our time is coming.' We just had to come in and just lock in and be focused. We kind of came in as a team and we're doing it for him.
"It can bring a whole team together," he added. "We're one big family, and nobody wants to hear something being said about your family, so it kind of brought us together and we just started playing for each other and our coaches."
Since that loss to the Aggies dropped Tennessee to 7-7 in the SEC, the Vols have ripped off four consecutive wins, the last three coming by a combined 93 points, yet still enter the SEC tournament with work to do regarding the NCAA tournament.
The strong finish has begged the question of why this level of play was missing all season amid a concern Tennessee has again dug itself too deep a hole regarding a return to the NCAA tournament.
With every disappointing loss or frustrating performance, the grumbling about Martin's job performance and status grew, but senior forward Jeronne Maymon said it didn't surprise him.
"You're always going to have doubters and haters, so to speak, so you can't really control what everybody thinks of you," he said. "Y'all reporters, I'm sure people read stuff that y'all write, and they probably don't like it. They probably say stuff about that, but I bet you guys don't let it bother you.
"People are entitled to their own opinion."
Barton, who transferred in from Memphis last summer, said the difference in the Vols' play the past three games has been an increased trust in each other.
"We're having fun, we're knocking down shots and we're defending," he said.
Then he credited Martin for the turnaround.
"That's the thing: we don't pay attention to any of that stuff," Jordan McRae, Tennessee's leading scorer, said of the criticism of Martin. "At the end of the day, Coach Martin, he coaches, the players play. We're playing our best basketball. He's been giving us the same blueprint all year, and now, as players, we're going out there doing it.
"Like I said, Coach Martin, he's doing everything he can do for us, but at the end of the day, we've got to go out there and guard and defend."
Maymon said the players got together and agreed that the criticism -- most of it from a growing vocal section of fans -- "wasn't gonna be spoke upon" among themselves.
"We don't need to talk about that," he said. "We know what's going on. You can't really say what's going on in our organization if you haven't been at practice every day. There's no need to talk about it.
"It's like a family. If your brother's getting criticized, you feel it, too, and you want to go out there and do something about it. That's how we took it."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.