JOE BIDDLE: Vols peaking at right time - WKRN News 2

JOE BIDDLE: Vols peaking at right time

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How sweet it is. Sweet 16, that is.

A Tennessee team that lost its way at times during the regular season, caught the fever down the stretch and now find themselves in the Sweet 16.

At one point this season, media critics (I was one) publicly doubted if Cuonzo Martin was capable of getting his team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his three years on The Hill.

Now 3-0 in a week's work, the Vols are now one of the tournament's favorite underdogs after a 20-point win Sunday over Mercer, a Cinderella team who saw the clock strike midnight.   Mercer had previously upset Duke in a first-round shocker.

But Martin's Orange Crush squad proved to be overpowering for the Bears.

Former Auburn and NBA star Charles Barkley, now an analyst for TBS, touted the Vols before the Big Dance started.

"They were lucky to get in the tournament,'' Barkley said of the Vols having to win a play-in game over Iowa to even put their name on office brackets.

"Mr. (Jarnell) Stokes is a man. They haven't had a close game. They're just mauling people.''

And you could tell by the bear hug Tennessee AD Dave Hart put on Martin that Martin's hot seat has turned ice cold. This is only the seventh time in school history that a Tennessee team has made the Sweet 16.

They are one of 16 teams still standing, teams avoiding upsets that are prevalent during March Madness.

They put down Iowa, Massachusetts and Mercer by impressive margins of 13, 19 and 20.

Now they meet Michigan, a 2-seed. They will play Friday in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The Vols better be at their best for what is a team that could give them match-up problems.

But the Ton of Fun that is Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, two 6-7, 260- pound Sumo wrestlers, are playing their best basketball of the season.

Stokes had a school record tying 22 double-doubles with 17 points and 18 rebounds, tying a career best. The Vols owned the glass, out-rebounding the Bears by 41-19. The Orangemen cleaned the offensive glass by an 18-7 margin.

At intermission, the Vols owned a 24-4 advantage on the boards. That's a priority when you play for Martin.

"As a team we've been doing that all year,'' Stokes said. "I feel like now that it's in the NCAA Tournament it's getting a lot more attention. We always feel like we control the boards.''

Josh Richardson enjoyed a career-high 26 points, 16 of them coming in the first half when the Vols built a nice lead. Point guard Antonio Barton came off a scoreless game to pump in 18 points, including 4 of 9 baskets from 3-point property.

It was a total team effort for the Vols. Now they are joined by Kentucky and No. 1 Florida to give the three SEC teams a 7-0 record in the NCAA Tournament. A weak league?

"I think when you have a stage and a platform and you're on television, you're allowed to say what you want to say. I think sometime perception becomes a reality. It's a very tough league, a very talented league,'' Martin said of the SEC's reputation of being a bad league this season.

"You've got the number one team in all of college basketball in the SEC. You have the most winning college program in the SEC in Kentucky. It is what it is. … I don't think the criticism is accurate. But the teams in the tournament, they won it because they're good teams.''

So, the Vols and the SEC have made their critics eat their words.

As for Martin his team will keep on keeping on.

"Defend, rebound, play hard. I say it all the time. … The shots don't fall, you defend, rebound, play hard. You give yourself a chance to win games. That's what we're doing.''

It works for me.

Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at joebiddle11@gmail.com.

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