RALEIGH, N.C. – Tennessee’s improbable run to the Sweet 16 has revealed a team playing at its highest level after struggling through portions of the regular season.
Ultimately the credit goes to the players and coach Cuonzo Martin for putting all the pieces together, but there are some specific factors that are helping the Vols. Here’s a look at five of the biggest:
1. The Vols are controlling the paint and the glass
Jarnell Stokes has been absolutely huge. The 6-foot-8 forward has been a monster on the glass all season, but he’s found another gear in March. With help from Jeronne Maymon, UT has a wide margin of advantage in rebounding, especially on the offensive end, where every missed shot has a decent chance to be gobbled up by one of UT’s bigs. The Mercer game was the most notable example of this with Tennessee winning the rebounding battle 41-19. It didn’t even seem that close.
2. The defense remains stingy
It’s Martin’s specialty and the Vols have embraced that end of the court. Virtually every opposing shot has been contested and teams are being forced to live by jumpers and 3-pointers. Tennessee’s opponents so far, all three of which are known for their offensive prowess, are averaging just 65 points per game in tournament play. The Vols are moving, communicating and building a defensive wall that opponents simply can’t penetrate with regularity.
3. Josh Richardson is playing at an elite level
Richardson, normally better known as being the team’s defensive stopper, is continuing to fulfill that role, but is also lighting it up on the offensive end. He averaged just over nine points per game in the regular season, but he’s averaging 19 in the NCAA tournament after dropping 26 against Mercer. After missing his first five shots against Iowa, Richardson has since hit 20 of his last 28 shots, making him arguably the hottest player in the tournament in that span. Asked if he’s playing the best basketball of his career, Richardson said yes, “or close to it.”
4. The matchups have been favorable
Not taking anything away from what UT’s done, but the matchups have generally worked in UT’s favor. Two of their opponents – Iowa and UMass – came into the tournament in somewhat of a slump and Tennessee hasn’t played anybody higher than a No. 6 seed yet. None of the teams have had a dominant, physical post player that can limit UT’s effectiveness inside. They’ve faced a lot of great shooters, but the Vols’ length and athleticism on the perimeter has helped neutralize them.
5. Tennessee is knocking down its free throws
UT has been about as close to perfect from the line as possible. The Vols knocked down 23 of 26 from the line against Mercer to push their average up to 85 percent for the tournament. That's been especially important as the Vols have taken leads down the stretch in the last two games.
6. The Vols have embraced Martin’s resilient attitude
Martin tuned the distractions out all year. His team learned to do that as well. The locker room is as close and focused as its been all season, but the players are also loose and having a good time. It’s the type of team that Martin envisioned when he took over at Tennessee. Forward Derek Reese said that’s been key for the team, tuning out distractions and knowing that their actions are the most important thing has helped this team get where it is.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga