Should Biz Markie tack an addendum onto his hip-hop classic “The Vapors” (or Snoop Dogg to his cover of it), Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin probably earned a shout-out during this year’s NCAA tournament run.
Just a few weeks ago, Martin was persona non grata. He was someone whose presence was simply a roadblock for overzealous fans, egged on by a radio host, who supported the rehiring of ousted Bruce Pearl. And had the NCAA selection committee opted to send any number of bubble teams to the First Four instead of Tennessee–SMU, Southern Miss, Cal, even SEC counterpart Arkansas–the squeaky wheels might have gotten their grease.
Instead, Martin and the Volunteers were winners of three tournament games, each of which was impressive for its own unique reasons.
The Vols had to rally from an almost wire-to-wire deficit to force overtime with Iowa, but dominated the extra frame to earn their way into the field of 64. Tennessee then did what it needed to against over-matched UMass and Mercer.
Aside from the additional game, Tennessee’s road to Indianapolis and the Sweet 16 was not the most treacherous. UMass was a soft six-seed and 14-seeded Mercer’s upset of Duke spared the Vols a matchup with the Blue Devils (and robbed the rest of us a Jordan McRae vs. Jabari Parker showdown).
But reaching the second weekend of the tournament is always a noteworthy accomplishment, particularly for a coach in his first NCAA tournament like Martin. And Martin truly made his mark in the Sweet 16.
Tennessee lost to last year’s national runner-up and regular season Big Ten Conference champion Michigan, but the loss was as resounding an endorsement for Martin as any of the previous three wins.
The Volunteers fell behind by 15 points in the second half, a margin that might seem insurmountable against an opponent of Michigan’s caliber. The Wolverines could not seem to miss and the Vols were stuck running in quicksand.
Tennessee could have folded its tent and taken a lopsided loss back to Knoxville. A Sweet 16 run for an 11-seed is unexpected, after all. But Martin’s team rallied and came a controversial charge call away from playing for a Final Four.
“In the second half we just played better defense than we did in the first,” McRae said via ASAPSports.com. “And it translated over to offense.”
The Tennessee on the floor in the second half, particularly the final 10 minutes, was a team as good as any in the nation. The Vols challenged shots, attacked the rim and battled for rebounds. Cuonzo Martin may have lost some in the Tennessee community during the 2013-’14 season, but it was evident none were on the floor in Lucas Oil Stadium.
Much as the team rallied, fans did likewise. A petition to reinstate Pearl lost steam inversely proportionate to gaining momentum for a petition to extend Martin, as detailed by WBIR.com.
March has a funny way of exposing the most capricious tendencies of fanbases. Sometimes a deep run tournament run is all it takes to inspire support, and in 2014, Martin’s Volunteers accomplished that.
In others words, Tennessee caught the vapors.