RALEIGH, N.C. – As last week began, the numbers were almost there. More than 36,000 Tennessee fans had electronically signed a petition that called for the removal of Coach Cuonzo Martin and the return of former Volunteers Coach Bruce Pearl.
Martin, the general sentiment was, had underachieved throughout his three seasons, and the petition was gaining traction. On Tuesday, though, Auburn hired Pearl, and Tennessee fans were left with Martin. “Back to mediocrity,” someone posted on the petition’s Web site.
Late Friday afternoon, though, Martin and his team made a case that there’s nothing mediocre about this team. The 11th-seeded Volunteers, who two days earlier defeated Iowa in an NCAA tournament play-in game, cruised past No. 8 Massachusetts with an 86-67 win at PNC Arena.
“When you defend at the level we’re capable of defending at,” Martin said afterward, “these are the results.”
On Sunday, the Volunteers will play Mercer, the Midwest Region’s No. 14 seed and the team that vanquished third-seeded Duke on Friday. Which means this: Martin, entering the week on the hot seat, will end it as a favorite to reach the Sweet 16.
Martin constructed his team to focus first on playing defense, and against the Minutemen, Tennessee forced mistakes and held Massachusetts to 33.3 percent shooting in the first half. Nine missed layups, 10 turnovers and a 19-point lead – all before halftime. “We were playing catch-up from there,” Massachusetts Coach Derek Kellogg said afterward.
Martin kept his team calm, even during a brief comeback attempt. The Volunteers had recently emphasized their transition offense, and that came in handy Friday when U-Mass. Kellogg used speed to offset Tennessee’s size advantage. The Minutement trimmed Tennessee’s lead to no fewer than 10 points, and meanwhile, Volunteers power forward Jarnell Stokes and guard Jordan McRae were combining for 47 points.
“I don’t feel like my legs are tired,” said Stokes, whose 26 points led all scorers. “Sort of reminds me of the AAU days.”
Martin seemed to lose fans’ trust with a dry personality and an approach that emphasized defense ahead of scoring. It was what he’d learned under his mentor, former Purdue Coach Gene Keady, and he was unwilling to change. When someone asked about the petition or his own personality, Martin usually said little in his defense.
On Friday, it was instead about results. During one of Massachusetts’s runs, testing Tennessee’s speed and conditioning, Minutemen guard Derrick Gordon ran toward the basket on a fast break – and, presumably, an easy basket. But there was Volunteers guard Josh Richardson, chasing him, reaching up and blocking Gordon’s layup. “A big turning point in the game,” Kellogg said.
Maybe for Martin’s popularity, too. When the ball bounced toward Tennessee after Richardson’s block, the fans in orange – some of them, maybe, with their names on that petition – stood and roared.