Wiedmer: Vols playing tough for Martin

Wiedmer: Vols playing tough for Martin

February 17th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin directs his team Saturday in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky in Knoxville. Tennessee won 88-58.

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin directs his team...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - The game was over, even if nearly 16 minutes remained on the Thompson-Boling Arena clock. Tennessee had 60 points, 25th-ranked Kentucky had 30, and it was hard to say which side was more stunned by this development.

But it was easy to figure out which team was tougher, more intense and better coached, at least on this third Saturday of February.

And it was about to get even easier, UT senior guard Skylar McBee diving across the floor to knock away a pass intended for the Wildcats' Kyle Wiltjer, the ball ultimately remaining with the Cats but the rousing cheers of 21,678 Volniacs all aimed at McBee.

"Right there, fans got to see what we want Tennessee basketball to be," McBee said after UT's eventual 88-58 win, the Vols' largest margin of victory in the history of the 216 games played between these two.

"We play as hard as we can until the game's over, no matter what the score is."

What Tennessee basketball is at the moment is one of the sweetest three-game runs in school history.

Seven days after posting their first road win of the season at South Carolina, the Vols have vanquished Vanderbilt in Nashville and bludgeoned Big Blue at home under second-year coach Cuonzo Martin.

Let the record show that Martin is now 6-4 against Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt with this season's lone contest against the Gators still to come (Feb. 26).

Let the record also show that while much was justifiably made of Kentucky being without star freshman center Nerlens Noel on Saturday and his nation's-best shot-blocking following a season-ending knee injury, Martin has had to make do without senior forward Jeronne Maymon -- who some believed was UT's best player -- all season.

This isn't to say Martin is necessarily a better coach than UK's John Calipari, who won his first NCAA title a year ago in his fourth Final Four appearance with three different schools.

It is to say Martin has done a better job with this team the past couple of weeks than Cal has. Just ask UK's coach.

"They played harder; they played rougher," Calipari said. "They deserved to beat us 50. They rolled the car over us a couple of times, then rolled it back again. Over and back. Over and back. I'll burn the tape of this one. I'm not watching it again."

Vols fans should watch it often. Over and back. Over and back. Watch how the Vols grabbed 18 more rebounds (39-21) and shot 58 percent from the floor while holding UK to 36 percent. Watch how they hit all five of their 3-pointers, including three from McThree -- oops, McBee.

Mainly, they should watch how this seemingly short-handed UT team suddenly has blossomed now that Martin has gone with four hot-shooting, physical guards surrounding the baby beast that is sophomore post Jarnell Stokes.

Martin now has used the starting lineup of Trae Golden, Jordan McRae, Josh Richardson, Armani Moore and Stokes two games in a row. On Wednesday night in Nashville the Big Orange prevailed 58-46 over Vanderbilt, the Vols scoring 40 in the first half before sleepwalking through the second.

On Saturday, UT put 50 up in the first 20 minutes, then pretty much kept up the intensity the rest of the afternoon, or at least until Stokes (9 points, 9 rebounds), Golden (24 points, 8 assists) and McRae (15 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks) headed to the bench for good with a little less than five minutes to go and the Vols ahead 80-44.

"Just sitting over there with Trae and Jordan with more than four minutes to play and knowing we'd won, that's something I'll never forget," said Stokes, who chose Tennessee over Kentucky. "And we made history, right? That means a lot."

It will mean more if this three-game winning streak reaches five heading into Florida's visit. Now 14-10 overall and 6-6 in the league, the Vols are still clearly on the outside of the NCAA Tournament bubble looking in. But what if they're 16-10 and 8-6 when Florida comes calling?

What if -- regardless of what happens against the Gators -- they win out at Georgia and Auburn and against Missouri to finish either 19-11 or 20-10 heading into the SEC Tournament in Nashville?

Unlike last year, there are no losses to Austin Peay and Oakland to crush UT's resume. Play as they did on Saturday, or at Vanderbilt, and the Vols could put the madness into March on Selection Sunday.

But with or without an NCAA tourney bid, this should be the game that the Big Orange Nation buys into Martin and his combative system. Former coach Bruce Pearl isn't walking through that Big Orange door again, however much many have pined for him the past 18 months.

Martin is the coach, and given the results of the past couple of weeks, UT is lucky to have him.

Of his Vols' recent improvement, Martin said, "You are tough out there; things are falling in line, especially when you have a chance to be successful."

Especially when you've just completed your program's most successful afternoon ever against the winningest team in college hoops history.