Cuonzo Martin stands firm on NCAA tourney prediction

Jarnell Stokes has double-doubles in 11 of Tennessee's last 15 games. (USATSI)

NASHVILLE – Refusing to backtrack from comments following a critical win against Missouri on Saturday, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin reiterated on Wednesday that he thinks his team deserves an at-large spot in the NCAA tournament if it fails to go unbeaten this week in Nashville.

Tennessee (19-11) enters Thursday’s game vs. Mississippi State in the second round of the SEC Tournament on a hot streak. The Volunteers have won eight of their last nine games, including victories over fellow bubble teams Missouri and Kentucky. Tennessee, which is 55th in’s latest RPI rankings, also won eight of their final nine regular season games last season.

“I said what I meant,” said Martin on his proclamation. “We had some tough (early) losses, some emotional losses, but to stick together the way they did, to continue to compete and to keep a level of composure that’s the thing we talk about as a staff. We tell them not to let one game discourage you.”

Tennessee’s surge could be attributed to the strong play of bruising forward Jarnell Stokes. The Volunteers’ sophomore forward has double-doubles in 11 of Tennessee’s last 15 games and a recent streak of six in a row. Stokes has also been imposing with his back to the basket, as his reverse layup over Laurence Bowers in the victory over the Tigers illustrates.

“I work on moves like that all the time with our coaches in my free time,” Stokes said. “That wasn’t just a power move, that was more of a finesse-type move. I’ve been working on those, too.”

The SEC is the only conference in Division I besides the Big East to have at least nine teams in the top 100 of the RPI rankings. Still, the conference could have as few as two teams in the field of 68. Martin indicated the perception that it is down a season for the conference is inaccurate.

“Sometimes people might want to take shots at the SEC for whatever reason,” Martin said. “When you’re talking about a league of this caliber with only three, possibly four teams in it, that’s ridiculous.”

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