'Riding a wave': Vols stay loose but focused as they head into Sweet 16 game

'Riding a wave': Vols stay loose but focused as they head into Sweet 16 game

March 28th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin watches a drill during practice for their NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Indianapolis. Tennessee plays Michigan on Friday, March 28, 2013.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.


What: Tennessee vs. Michigan in the NCAA tournament's round of 16

Where: Indianapolis

When: Tonight at 7:15


Radio: 102.3 FM

Tennessee's Derek Reese signs autographs after practice for the NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal college basketball tournament game Thursday, March 27, 2014, in Indianapolis. Tennessee plays Michigan on Friday, March 28, 2013.

Tennessee's Derek Reese signs autographs after practice for...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

Document: 2014 NCAA Men's Bracket

Bracket for the 2014 NCAA Men?s Division I Basketball Championship

INDIANAPOLIS - When you first walk into Lucas Oil Stadium, your eyes can't help but widen at the sight.

The nearly 70,000-seat indoor arena, built in 2008 for the NFL's Indianapolis Colts and the host of the 2012 Super Bowl, is impressive enough on its own with its wall of windows, brick exterior, sheer size and the aura of once housing quarterback Peyton Manning.

Drop a large black curtain to divide it in half and put a raised basketball court on the well-lit side of the building, and you could see why Tennessee's basketball players were in awe of it after their shootaround there on Thursday.

"My jaw kind of dropped when I saw the stadium," said guard Josh Richardson.

"Being out there today," added freshman Darius Thompson, "that's when it first really hit me that we're in the Sweet 16."

For just the seventh time in more than 100 years of basketball, the Volunteers will play in the NCAA tournament's round of 16 tonight against Michigan, the regular season champions of the Big Ten Conference.

A postseason run that began in the 13,409-seat University of Dayton Arena nine days ago certainly has taken Tennessee to a much different stage, a much grander one than that "First Four" game last Wednesday.

It's a new frontier for every coach and player in the program, but the Vols don't want to get caught up taking in their surroundings while their season and tournament run abruptly ends.

"The good thing with our group is we've got some experience," assistant coach Kent Williams told the Times Free Press outside Tennessee's locker room following the team's practice at Lucas Oil.

"We've got guys that are juniors and seniors that are playing a ton of minutes for us, and some guys that have been humbled by not being here. I think some of the guys probably thought their college career would have gone a little better than it has as far as, 'Hey, we'd have been in the tournament last year and the year before.'

"Now they're kind of just riding this thing, kind of riding a wave. We've talked about that. They stay focused, they seem like they're with it, but let's ride the energy wave until the wave breaks. You've got to go with it, because we're playing with a lot of energy right now. You don't want to do anything to pull it down."

The challenge for the Vols this week has been maintaining the us-against-everyone-else underdog edge that's accompanied this run dating back to the last couple of weeks of the regular season while handling increased positivity with more high-fives and back-pats on campus.

Now that they're here, it's about not becoming overwhelmed by the stage.

"The lights are real bright, and it's a wonderful feeling to be here at this moment," point guard Antonio Barton said.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he added, "so you've got to enjoy it every moment. Right now, when we're in the locker room, when we're at the hotel, we'll all let it soak it. But when we get out on the court, it's business."

So far in the NCAA tournament - save for the onset of stage fright against Iowa in the opener - Tennessee has been sharp on the floor and loose off it.

Injured guard D'Montre Edwards and walk-ons Brandon Lopez and Galen Campbell have made the "Stone Cold Stunner," a wrestling move made famous by the one and only "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, a staple of this bunch. The trio pulled the move on multiple unsuspecting media members, including ESPN's Andy Katz and broadcaster Reggie Miller, in Raleigh last week.

Greg Anthony, the former NBA player calling tonight's game with CBS, was even asking the trio for a stunner on Twitter after the Vols wrapped up their practice on Thursday.

"We got to this point; you've got to have fun with it," third-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. "You can't be uptight in this atmosphere. Obviously you're doing something right to get to this point. You've got to enjoy it and embrace it."

Of course, if you enjoy it too much, the fun ends in the heartbreak of a season-ending loss.

"It's obviously enjoyable," said Williams, who reached the Sweet 16 as a player with Southern Illinois in 2002. "You can't get too caught up in the moment because you're still in the middle of a tournament.

"If you think about it, we're a third of the way done with a tournament. Maybe for us, we're a little further because we had to play the first game, but you're kind of having to have your mindset on, 'Hey, we've got to get these next two.' You always take it one game at a time, but you kind of look at it as a two-game tournament.

"We're at a new site, we've got a two-game tournament here, we're trying to win it and trying to move on to another two-game tournament. You kind of get in here and you've got the big dome, and you've got the media and everything, it's fun and it's exciting, but you just try to keep your mind on what you're really here to do."

For Tennessee, that's reaching only the second Elite Eight in program history.

"I feel like we're really focused, an all-time high of focus right now," Thompson said.

"We're just ready to go out there and play."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.