I believe I echo the sentiments of many a Vols basketball fan when I ask this question: Where has this been all season?
The Tennessee Volunteers (20-11, 11-7 SEC) once again led from beginning to end in a dominating win Saturday, this time against fellow bubble team Missouri. The Tigers (21-10, 9-9) fell behind early, and the Vols used stifling defense to run away with the game and ensure another blowout victory to close out the season, 72-45.
The victory against Missouri wasn’t even the biggest of the past 7 days for the Vols, who claimed Auburn by 28 on Wednesday and decimated Vanderbilt by 38 the previous Saturday.
After losing once again to a lowly Texas A&M team, the Vols’ chances of making the NCAA Tournament looked extremely slim, and thousands of Tennessee fans were clamoring for coach Cuonzo Martin’s job despite there being 4 games left in the regular season. Apparently, some of the players used this bitterness from the fanbase as motivation, and they’ve now matched their best win streak of the season with 4 straight victories, and three of those have been in lopsided, dominating victories.
So how did the Vols accomplish this feat? How did a team that lost twice to Texas A&M and looked sluggish while being beaten by a Vanderbilt team that only has 7 scholarship players on its roster reel off 4 straight wins and in such a decisive manner? Was it simply the added vitriol of the fanbase growing sultry? Is this team better when their backs are forced against a wall?
Well, if you ask Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon, it doesn’t matter. Maymon, who has been slowed this season by a bum knee that caused him to miss the entire 2012-13 season, said after Saturday’s victory (via Go Vols Xtra, subscription required) that all the talk about Martin is “sometimes ridiculous.” He put the blame on himself and his team, saying “He [Martin] hasn’t taken one shot. It falls on the players that come out and lose those games. When someone fights for you, you have to fight back.”
So has it been the backlash from fans that has fueled the fire burning under Tennessee lately?
Whatever it is, Vols fans hope it can last into the postseason. Cuonzo Martin’s previous two teams finished the last 5 games of the season 4-1 just like this season, but each of those seasons saw early exits in the SEC Tournament and ultimately let a NCAA berth slip through its fingers. The difference is the way the Vols have won these crucial games.
Last season the Vols squeaked by Missouri in a hard-fought game to finish the season with a 64-62 victory. This season, Missouri was the victim of a 27 point shellacking, the latest victim of UT’s defensive surge. The Vols have held their last 3 opponents to an average of 45.7 points per game, and those opponents have been held to an average field goal percentage of 30.9 and have made only 11 combined 3-point shots compared to Tennessee’s 25 during that span.
The Vols have not been relying solely on their offense down the stretch, and this defensive efficiency could not come at a better time. But will it propel them to a run in the SEC Tournament?
History would beg to differ. The Vols have not won the SEC Tournament since 1979, and they have only made it to the finals of the tournament twice since then, once in 1991 and not again till 2009. In their 53 SEC Tournament appearances, the Vols have only made it to the semifinals 22 times and have been bounced in their very first game of the tournament 15 times since 1979.
But this group of Vols might be fighting for more than just a postseason bid. This group, led by 3 starting seniors and 2 starting juniors, might just be fighting for the man they’ve played under for the last 3 years (excluding Barton, of course).
Will the added motivation lead them to an SEC Championship and an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament?
Vol fans would just be happy with a return to the NCAA Tournament, no doubt, but only time will tell how far this up-and-down group can go. It is March Madness, after all.