Less than one month ago, Tennessee was .500 in SEC play and staring down the wrong side of the bubble for the third time in three years under Cuonzo Martin. Martin was the hot seat coach of the week, it seemed, as Tennessee fans rallied by the thousands to suggest that athletic director Dave Hart bring back former coach Bruce Pearl to right the ship in Knoxville.
While Pearl is fiery and emotional, Martin is unwavering with his approach to coaching. A commitment to physical defense and dictating the pace of the game was not going to change with a little pressure from the fan base. He calls the outside criticism "wasted energy," and ignoring the extraneous elements is part of his message in basketball as well.
Since the "Bring Back Bruce" campaign hit critical mass, Tennessee has won seven of eight games, only falling to Florida in the SEC tournament, and now needs just one win to reach the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in school history.
During the run, Martin has implored his team to "just be tough, play tough," Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said after the 86-67 win. "Play like we know how to play. Don't play at anybody else's pace, and I think we've done a good job of that."
Tennessee doesn't win flashy, and that may have been part of the problem with the fans. The slow pace -- the Vols' adjusted tempo ranks No. 325 of 351 Division I teams and only five teams are slower in the NCAA Tournament -- and defense-first approach can be hard to appreciate as a casual fan.
But as Martin pointed out on Friday, the players have seen the results that can come from that approach.
"They understand and I guess they realize when you defend at the level we're capable of defending at, these are the results behind it," Martin said. "They really bought into it and embraced the fact if we can defend the way we defend, you can still score the ball. Scoring is a lot better when you can defend. Playing with confidence, everybody plays their role and you want to win as a family."
If the fans buy in like the players have, then maybe everyone in Knoxville will be on the same page. Cuonzo Martin is not Bruce Pearl; he won't provide fans with the same wild antics that continued throughout Pearl's tenure. But with a win on Sunday against Mercer, Martin will be just the fourth coach in school history to lead the Vols' into the Sweet 16.
A season ago, Tennessee was one of the teams just short of the cut line for the tournament, and the toxic feeling of disappointment seeped into the NIT practices and resulted in an embarrassing 75-67 home loss to Mercer in the first round.
"It was bad during those NIT practices," Jarnell Stokes said Friday. "I think that gave us a lot of motivation right now that we're in the tournament."
The fact that Mercer is the opponent standing between Tennessee and the Sweet 16 seems appropriate, and their ability to dismantle teams the way they did to Duke is not lost on the UT players.
"I remember last year, they definitely executed their plays against us very well and we didn't match their intensity," Richardson said. "We weren't very disciplined in the game and they came in our house and whooped us, so we can't let that happen again this year."
The discipline that may have been missing a year ago has been on display in the last month, and it appears to be a reflection on their head coach.