KNOXVILLE — Cuonzo Martin rolled his eyes so hard he could have shifted the earth off its axis.
“What conversation is that?” the Tennessee coach asked with raised brows and a smirk.
Whether he wants to downplay it or not, Martin’s Vols are slowly creeping into the national chatter surrounding the NCAA tournament and its revolving-door bubble.
That’s the conversation.
It’s not premature. Let’s not act like Tennessee’s suddenly viable chances to reach the NCAA tournament are not in the back of everyone’s mind.
What if Tennessee runs the table to finish the regular season? What if the currently unimpressive 14-12 record morphs into a 19-12 record? As recently as two weeks ago, these questions were laughable.
Now? Well, now the Vols are playing as well as any SEC team not named Kentucky. Slowly but surely, the talking heads from coast to coast are starting to take notice, even if Martin bats the attention away.
“I just don’t consume myself in reading it,” he said Friday, standing outside a team bus headed to the airport for a flight to Tuscaloosa. “That’s what happens, you get complacent and you start reading your press clippings and you fall short. For me it’s just one day at a time. Whatever happens, you have to still do your job.”
Riding a four-game winning streak, Tennessee will face dilapidated Alabama on Saturday. Starters Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green, the Tide’s two leading scorers, remain suspended, while Andrew Steele (ankle), Trevor Releford (head) and Nick Jacobs (mouth infection), who combine for 26.0 points per game, are all listed as questionable, coach Anthony Grant said on Friday. The Vols’ second road win of the season appears likely. When the sun sets on Saturday, a churning train should gain a little more momentum.
“I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about (the NCAA tournament), but you have to make a conscious decision to think about every game and make a conscious decision to take it a game at a time,” said Skylar McBee, a catalyst in the Vols’ rise with four made 3-pointers in each of the team’s last three games. “When you start looking forward, that’s when you drop one. That’s when you overlook somebody. We can’t do that right now.”
Speaking hypothetically, a trip to the NCAA tournament wouldn’t create dreams for these Vols, it would fulfill them. At the beginning of the season, they were viewed as a ragtag group without the overall talent to compete in the SEC. There’s a reason they were picked to finish 11th in the conference. Martin inherited a bare cupboard and found a way to fill the shelves — a bullying defense and punch-you-in-the-mouth toughness. If not for a team in Lexington rolling flawlessly through the league slate, it would be Martin, not John Calipari, who’d be the clear favorite to win SEC coach of the year.
But, really, what if Tennessee dances?
For those who join Martin in rolling their eyes, simply look at Penn State. The Nittany Lions were 12-11 and 5-7 in the Big Ten at this time last year. They went on to reach the conference title game (lost to Ohio State) by winning seven of their last nine and were deemed a 10 seed as an at-large. Penn State didn’t have anything resembling a strong non-conference win, but got in by means of a few notable league wins (Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State) and its impressive run in the Big Ten tournament.
It can happen.
In fact, even if Tennessee drops one of its final five regular-season games (at Bama, Ole Miss, at South Carolina, at LSU, Vanderbilt), the Vols can still be in the conversation on March 11 by virtue of a run in the SEC tournament. This year’s precious NCAA tournament bubble will be softer than a Marriott pillow, and down years from the Pac-12, ACC and Big East will leave bids hanging out there like carrots.
To dismiss Tennessee’s chances is naive.
More importantly, to not appreciate that Tennessee has a chance is inane.
The fact that the Vols boarded a bus Friday tied for fourth place in the SEC is a testament to Martin and his players willingness to “buy-in.” Yes, the addition of Jarnell Stokes has paid huge dividends, but players like McBee, Trae Golden, Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae didn’t magically become more talented. Instead, the skills they possess have been harnessed and defense has become the calling card. Punishing physical workouts in the preseason are now shining through.
The payoff has come tenfold. The 2011-12 Vols were supposed to be irrelevant.
Now, they’re in the conversation.
“It’s great given how hard we’ve worked and everything that we’ve been through,” Golden said. “It’s just huge that we keep pushing. We can’t look ahead right now and think about the end of the season.”