Mark Wiedmer: Players, fans expecting victories now from Vols

Mark Wiedmer: Players, fans expecting victories now from Vols

February 27th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (52) dunks the ball in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Florida in Knoxville.

Tennessee guard Jordan McRae (52) dunks the ball...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - The buzzer sounded and the Thompson-Boling Arena scoreboard showed unranked Tennessee with 64 points and No. 8 Florida with 58.

This seemingly unexpected conclusion had "storm the court" written all over it. Especially with 19,567 filling the stands, the second largest crowd of the season.

Only the fans didn't rush their heroes late Tuesday evening. Nor did sophomore center Jarnell Stokes -- he of the 14 huge rebounds in just 24 foul-plagued minutes -- expect such behavior.

"I feel like we expected to win this game," he said afterward. "I didn't get that upset feeling, people rushing the court. We expected to win this one."

This is when you know you've arrived, when your fans act as if they've been there before, as if they expected it as much as the players.

Once 3-6 in the Southeastern Conference, the Volunteers have won six games in a row to improve to 9-6 in conference play and 17-10 overall. Suddenly, the NCAA tournament seems more reachable than ridiculous.

Suddenly, UT coach Cuonzo Martin must be looking pretty good to all those folks -- and you know who you are -- who couldn't wait to fire him three weeks ago.

"Best job all year on both ends of the floor," Martin said after his third victory over the Gators in three tries as the UT boss. "We did a good job without a lot of walk-through time."

How good a job? Consider that the Gators entered this night hitting over 40 percent from the 3-point line in conference play, easily the top figure in the league, and perhaps the biggest reason their victory margin in league games was 20.6 points per game before Tuesday.

Yet against the Vols and Martin's maniacal defense, Florida hit only 4 of 17 3s (23.5 percent).

"You have to make them beat you with 2s," Martin said. "You have to keep them off the 3-point line. That's where they make their money, so to speak."

This may also be where the Vols claim their first NCAA berth under Martin in his second season on the job.

Thanks to one wretched effort and two mediocre ones early in the SEC season -- 92 points allowed Ole Miss, 75 at Kentucky, 73 at Arkansas -- UT doesn't light up the league's defensive stats.

But in these six straight wins the Vols have given up only 63.3 a game. Toss out the 85 allowed Texas A&M in four overtimes and that figure drops to 59 points a contest, which would trail only Florida and Alabama among the league's 14 teams.

Does this mean the Vols are in the big tournament?

Hardly. But it puts them in the conversation.

Or as junior guard Jordan McRae said after torching the Gators for 27 points, his third straight game of 23 or more: "This was a statement win."

To be fair, the Gators entered this game without two key components: junior forward Will Yeguete, their best on-ball defender, and freshman guard Michael Frazier II, who's hitting over 50 percent of his 3s.

And either of those players might have changed the complexion of this game, especially Yeguete, who almost certainly would have made McRae's life tougher.

But as any member of Big Orange Nation can instantly tell you, the Vols would have been a far tougher squad all season had they had burly forward Jeronne Maymon down low to team with Stokes.

Almost everyone is sore or hurt or missing someone important this time of year. It's what you do with what you've got that separates the NCAA teams from those limping into the NIT.

Which brings us to the Vols' next test and foe, the Georgia Bulldogs, who were the last team to beat Tennessee, stunning them 68-62 inside Thompson-Boling on Feb. 6.

"Georgia, that's a good team," Stokes said of Saturday's road game. "We've got to come out playing like we did today."

Playing like they expected to win, with dizzying defense, which is where they make their money, so to speak.