KNOXVILLE – Tennessee fans had a hard time getting behind the 2013-14 basketball squad during portions of the season.
That’s somewhat of an opinion, but there’s some data to back it up as well. Attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena was down an average of over 1,100 fans per game for UT home games. A quick poll of local media showed that readership was down on basketball stories. There was clearly more negativity than support on social media and on talk radio during certain stretches of the season as a team with high expectations struggled to make the NCAA tournament.
But it’s safe to say the support is largely back after the Vols rolled through three rounds of NCAA tournament play and now will face No. 2 seed Michigan in the Sweet 16 on Friday. That was evidenced by the crowd that showed up when the Vols returned from Raleigh, N.C., around 2:30 a.m. Monday morning.
“I was surprised myself because no way I would be staying up until2:30in the morning to slap a couple guys fives but it is special to know that you have people that care that much around you,” Tennessee senior Jordan McRae said of the estimated crowd of between 100-200 fans.
“Our guys really enjoyed that and looked forward to it,” added coach Cuonzo Martin. “They probably didn’t know about it – I didn’t know. But to see the fans out there it was great. I saw mostly students.”
Martin doesn’t seem bothered that some who were discouraged are coming around to support the team. Always one to minimize outside distractions, he rarely acknowledges any outside chatter about his program.
It’s been an especially tough year to do just that. From a portion of the fan base clamoring for the return of former coach Bruce Pearl to the overall decline in interest during portions of the season, Martin took it all in stride and has now reached the place that many fans expected this team to be in – the Sweet 16.
“For me, the great thing is that I have had the same friends since I was 5 or 6 years old and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “That has been consistent. Outside of that everything is pretty much a bonus as far as I am concerned. For our guys, these are the things I talk about from day one in June or July. This is what might happen. How to you handle these situations? Stay even keeled.
“But there is nothing wrong with a pat on the back. Understand why and how you got to this point. It is part of it, but I still don’t get a lot of sleep. That doesn’t change for me. Making sure these guys get up and go to class, continue to be successful off the court. It never stops. That is the way it is.”
Tough ticket in Indy: Friday’s pair of Sweet 16 games in Indianapolis – Tennessee vs. Michigan and Kentucky vs. Louisville – could be one of the toughest tickets of the year.
Lucas Oil Stadium, which has a capacity for basketball of approximately 40,000, has sold out all of the standard tickets and is now selling “distant view” seats for $50. Tennessee sold its full allotment of 1250 “very quickly” according to a UT representative. Of those 1250, 125 were made available for a student lottery.
Ticket prices on Stubhub.com for the session start at just below $300. The two games are sold as one ticket. Kentucky and Louisville are two of the best travelling basketball fan bases in the nation and all four schools are within six hours driving distance to Indianapolis.
Martin facing off against Glenn Robinson III: Friday’s matchup with Michigan brings an interesting subplot. The Vols will be facing Glenn Robinson III (13.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg), the son of Glenn Robinson Jr., who Martin played with at Purdue and remains friends with.
“He is a great kid, and his family has done a great job of raising him,” said Martin. “I am happy for him and the success he is having. I don’t want to see him play wellon Friday, but he is a good kid and deserves everything he gets.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga