|Cuonzo Martin, right, has pulled off one of the best coaching jobs in the country this year. (US Presswire)|
By Matt Norlander
Tennessee is still in play to finish second in the SEC.
That's more than surprising; it's downright stunning.
The Volunteers were supposed to take this year to learn, get better, grow older and adapt to first-year coach Cuonzo Martin's system. Now, after UT (18-13, 10-6) defeated Vanderbilt 68-61 at home Saturday, the Volunteers' name is getting tossed out in the bubble picture. At least two more big wins are needed for the at-large talk to have legitimacy and logistical reason, but the fact Martin's coached his team to this point is impressive -- and hopefully a really, really good sign for the future of this program.
The Martin hire was considering underwhelming by some Tennessee fans. But this was after the beloved Bruce Pearl was forced out for lying to the NCAA, effectively blacklisted for three years by the institution as well. Martin came in after guiding Missouri State to one NIT appearance and not NCAA tournament berths in three seasons. Martin's done as good of a job already, no matter what happens in the SEC tournament, as anyone could expect.
If the Tennessee-in-the-tournament talk feels premature to you, that's because it is. No one is putting UT in yet, but they're now on the pile. The Vols played the first half of this season without freshman Jarnell Stokes. Stokes is one of Tennessee's two best players, so yeah, that's got impact. Since he started playing, the Volunteers are 9-5. It's not a huge uptick in how they play, but they're undeniably better with him in the lineup. The team has wins over Vandy, a sweep of Florida -- huge -- and that home win against UConn, which isn't greatly impressive ... but if we got down to it, could be a trump card.
Tennessee also closed its season out by winning three of four on the road. The Selection Committee highly values road wins. On the year, UT is 3-8. You wonder if the overall record carries a lot more heft -- considering most of those road losses were without Stokes -- than the recent surge.
To get it really interesting, Tennessee's going to have to earn itself another top-50 win. Getting the No. 2 seed, which can only happen if Florida beats Kentucky at home Sunday, would be paramount, as it would give Tennessee its best shot at reaching the SEC finals, since they couldn't face Kentucky in the bracket until then. All of this is conjecture and optimism, but the fact we're even posting about Tennessee on March 3 in relation to getting a bye in the SEC tournament and still having hoping for the bracket that matters? It amounts to one of the most unlikely storylines in major college basketball this season.