March 27, 2014
By Jason Yellin INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.-- It is business as usual for Cuonzo Martin and his Vols as they prepare for a Sweet 16 match-up with Michigan. Martin has stayed firm with his message that he has coached Tennessee in a similar fashion since they began practice back in the fall.
Martin does however know teams evolve throughout a season.
"A lot of teams go through things through the course of a season," Martin told the media at Thursday's press conference. "I think that's the great thing about a long season, anything can happen.
"But I think for our guys they've stayed consistent. If you look at us over the past three years, one thing we've done is get better down the stretch of a season."
Down that stretch in 2014, the Vols have won eight of their last nine games. And over that span, Tennessee limited foes to 55.6 points per game - demonstrating their "Tougher Breed" moniker. In six of the eight wins, the Vols did not trail for a second of action.
With all of the success of late, the Vols are playing their best basketball. That has created a comfortable and fun atmosphere heading into the biggest game of their careers.
"It's been a long road," said senior All-SEC guard Jordan McRae. "I have great teammates and great coaches around me and everything came together at the right time."
The Vols were soaking in the environment of an open practice where thousands of fans came out to watch the team go through drills on Thursday.
"We are having fun and a great time with this experience," said McRae. "This is a once in a lifetime experience."
For senior Antonio Barton, who transferred from Memphis, this is his fourth NCAA Tournament, but first in the Sweet 16.
"It's just exciting," said Barton. "The lights are real bright and it's just a wonderful feeling to be here at this moment."
The Vols are prepared to play in front of the largest crowd ever to watch a Tennessee basketball team. More than 40,000 tickets have been sold for the doubleheader at Lucas Oil Stadium.
That mark will shatter the record of 26,776, which watched the Vols at San Antonio's Alamodome in the 2007 Sweet 16.
Playing on the big stage -- literally -- as the court in Indianapolis is elevated, is something the Vols are relishing.
"It's crazy," said freshman Darius Thompson. "I'm watching a football team play on this and now I'm playing basketball on the same field they are playing on."
Thompson wasn't alone in his awe of playing at an NFL venue.
Junior Josh Richardson had similar feelings.
"My jaw dropped when I saw the stadium," said Richardson. "But we got to shoot in it and I think we warmed up to it."
No matter the size of the building, the amount of fans or the opponent, the Vols have a keen focus on the task at hand -- one that has come with many smiles along the way.
"We practiced this morning before we got over here," Martin said of the Vols' session at the Pacers' Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "It was more of a grind-it, nuts and bolts of what we need to do.
"But, you've got to have fun with it. You can't be uptight in this atmosphere. Obviously you're doing something right to get to this point. You've got to enjoy it, embrace it.
"You've got seniors that will never play in this game again. So have fun with it and do what we've been doing to be successful. It's the most important thing."