Wiedmer: Was Martin's claim too soon for Vols?

Wiedmer: Was Martin's claim too soon for Vols?

March 16th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Vols T logo

Vols T logo

NASHVILLE - It certainly seemed like a good idea at the time.

His team having just dispatched Missouri inside Thompson-Boling Arena last weekend, Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin said of his torrid Volunteers' NCAA tournament chances, "I think the job is done."

Yet in light of Friday's dispiriting 58-48 loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals, the question for Martin, his team and the rest of the Big Orange Nation is whether the Vols too soon thought their job was done.

Especially since ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had moved UT from the fragile "last four in" to the fractured "first four out" on the NCAA tourney bubble within an hour of the Vols' defeat.

Not that Lunardi actually decides these things. That task still goes to the selection committee, which won't release their 68-team field until 6 p.m. Sunday.

And with such fellow bubble sitters as La Salle and Virginia losing Friday in their conference tournaments, Tennessee is still certainly in the mix.

But the Vols never seemed in the groove against Bama. Not in falling behind 8-4 early. Not in watching a 15-10 lead become a 31-27 deficit at halftime. Certainly not throughout a stupendously awful second half in which they shot 24 percent from the floor (7-of-29) and 20 percent (2-of-10) from the 3-point line.

Maybe such shooting was caused by the variety of zone defenses the Crimson Tide threw at UT in trying to negate the power of Janrell Stokes inside. And if that was Bama coach Anthony Grant's plan, it worked about as well as possible.

Stokes struggled to score 12 points, despite grabbing eight offensive rebounds (13 total), and guards Trae Golden and Jordan McRae -- big reasons the Vols had won nine of their last 10 games coming in -- shot a combined 4-of-20 from the floor and combined for six turnovers.

"It's tough when we're not making shots," Golden said afterward. "It makes everything tough. I thought we had another run in us, but it just didn't happen. Sometimes you just miss shots."

Or did Martin miss the motivational mark? Did saying the job was done a week ago make it seem less important for the players to get the job done for a second time in two afternoons in the SEC tournament?

After all, when Alabama point guard Trevor Releford -- who scored 14 Friday -- was asked about the Tide's NCAA tourney chances, he replied, "We're not necessarily worrying about the NCAA tournament, because we know if we take care of what we need to take care of here, then, I mean, we get the [SEC] championship, [the NCAA bid] will be automatic."

When it comes to the SEC tournament, nothing seems automatic for UT except defeat. Haley's Comet comes around more often than UT wins these things. The Vols won the first one in 1979 and haven't won one since. That's 34 straight Marches without a trophy.

But this year wasn't so much about locking down a trophy as locking up an NCAA bid. The Vols needed only to beat an Alabama team they'd outlasted in Knoxville and should have beaten in Tuscaloosa to accomplish that.

Instead, they shot 32 percent from the floor and lost, leaving the job of reaching the NCAA tournament far from done.

As he wrapped up his postgame news conference Friday evening, someone asked Bama's Grant if he now thought his team had done enough to make the Big Dance, now that the Tide stood 21-11 overall and in the conference tourney semis.

He replied: "Don't take this the wrong way, but right now we're in the SEC tournament. We play Florida tomorrow. That's all that really matters."

Maybe Martin should have taken that same attitude eight days ago.