By Steve Williams
Criticism of the University of Tennessee men’s basketball program was raining down after a disappointing 65-58 home loss to North Carolina State on Dec. 18.
Some fans were even wanting to get the ball rolling to replace Cuonzo Martin with former coach Bruce Pearl before the Vols could rim out another 3-pointer, clank another free throw or miss another shot from point-blank range.
The highly successful and popular Pearl will be eligible to coach again when his 3-year showcause penalty for lying to the NCAA ends in August.
Martin didn’t lose his cool under the heat. In fact, he said the fans had good reason to be dissatisfied and upset. He just encouraged them to fire their shots at the guy in charge.
And that’s Cuonzo, a coach that’s always had his players’ backs.
And the players’ response since then has been having their coach’s back.
The Vols have done their talking on the court. They’ve been playing like they want to keep their coach around. They’ve been shooting like they too want to be around for March Madness.
Tennessee had put together an impressive four-game win streak prior to this past Saturday’s game against Texas A&M. The Vols were 10-4 overall after winning 68-50 on the road at LSU last Tuesday in their Southeastern Conference opener.
“It was a great team win,” said Coach Martin. “A good effort top to bottom.”
Jarnell Stokes had his league-leading 25th career double-double, 15 points and 15 rebounds. And did you see that inside pass Jeronne Maymon made to Jarnell? Like old times.
Jordan McRae, maybe the SEC’s best player, contributed 19 points and five assists in UT’s sixth straight win over the Tigers.
The Vols shot 46 percent from the field, hit 8 of 15 treys and sank 12 of 15 foul shots.
They swished the nets even better than that in the 87-52 romp past Virginia, one of the nation’s top-rated defensive teams, on Dec. 30. Their 48 points in the first half were the most the Cavaliers had given up before an intermission in 118 games.
The Cavs, on average, came into Thompson-Boling Arena allowing opponents only 54.2 points per game and holding them to 37 percent field goal accuracy.
That night, though, Tennessee shot 57.7 percent from the field in the first half, and finished 11 of 18 from 3-point range and 22 of 25 from the free throw line.
Good marksmanship, as you can see, can turn a team around. “Score the ball,” as Cuonzo calls it.
“Just to be able to come out and play as well as we did (against LSU) shows a lot about us,” said 6-6 junior wing guard Josh Richardson, who has emerged as a new and improved offensive player in Tennessee’s surge. “Our first SEC road game, to come out and win it so convincingly, it gives us a lot of confidence.”
It’s been more than just putting the ball in the basket, added Josh.
“Our defense has been a lot more consistent, and we’ve been putting two halves together. That’s definitely been showing. We’ve just been following the game plan, really. Just executing.”
Can they keep it going?
Tennessee was 0-6 before it won its first road game each of the past two seasons. After this Wednesday night’s home contest against Auburn, the Vols will be facing their toughest two road assignments in SEC play – at Kentucky for a Saturday noon shootout and at Florida the following Saturday on Jan. 25.
The victory at LSU improved the Vols’ NCAA tourney chances, giving them four wins versus teams with a RPI of 75 or better, according to ESPN.com.
If Tennessee skins the Wildcats and the Gators on the road, or even comes out with a split in those two hostile environments, its NCAA resume will get another significant upgrade.
Some say UT needs to get to 13-5 in the SEC standings to have hopes of returning to the Big Dance, after having to settle for the NIT the past two seasons.
The Vols got off to a good start. Pearl talk died down. The sun was shining again for Cuonzo and his team.