Since Wichita State’s NCAA tournament is over, perhaps the Tennessee men’s basketball team can borrow its popular “Play Angry” motto.
Not only would the phrase fit the Vols’ frame of mind as of late, it would also remind them of their nine-point loss to the Shockers back on Dec. 14. This is the kind of fuel they prefer.
“It’s definitely motivation that people doubted us,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said once again, this time before his team practiced at Pratt Pavilion on Tuesday.
What, you figured a Sweet 16 ticket would smooth the edge off the team tied for most losses (12) and worst seed (11) left in the field?
“As players they have been knocked down a little bit,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said. “And there is nothing wrong with that, in my opinion, as long as you are still playing at the level you are capable of playing at.”
The knocked-down, kicked-around Vols (24-12) play No. 2 seed Michigan (27-8) on Friday (7:15 p.m.) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Until then, they seem determined to feed off every slight they encountered, including the ones that predated their delayed surge.
“You’ve got to keep the same mentality that got you here,” UT forward Jeronne Maymon said. “Stick with what works.”
The Vols haven’t been doubted much lately, though. They’ve won eight of their last nine games with the only loss coming to No. 1 Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals. After that they beat Iowa, UMass and Mercer in a span of five days in the NCAA tournament, making the Sweet 16 for seventh time in the program’s history, the fourth time in eight seasons.
Stokes has averaged 20.3 points and 15 rebounds in the tournament. Junior guard Josh Richardson has jumped from 9.2 points per game in the regular season to 19.3 in the tournament. As a team, the Vols have shot 49.1 percent from the field and claimed drastic advantages in scoring margin (17.3) and rebounding (11). And a rededicated defense has remained stiff, holding opponents to an average of 54 points in the last eight games.
The naysayers who were so prevalent when UT was 16-11 and 7-7 in the lowly SEC are becoming harder and harder to find.
“You go into a gas station and the people that you’ve never even talked to — like the clerks and stuff — are saying congratulations,” Maymon said. “People are really happy. A lot of older folks are really happy and things like that. It’s something new for us.”
Another example: When the team arrived home from Raleigh, N.C., in the wee hours of Monday morning, a crowd of more than 100 students had gathered at Thompson-Boling Arena to cheer.
“I was surprised,” Richardson said. “There’s no way I would be staying up until 2:30 in the morning to slap a couple guys five. But it’s special to know that you have people who care that much around you.”
This is becoming way too warm and fuzzy.
“I’ve received a lot of attention everywhere I go,” Stokes said. “I’m sort of salty about it, I would say. I’m sort of mad about it. Because people I’ve been seeing all this time, they had been saying, ‘Oh, hey, Jarnell.’ Now they see me and sort of, they get a little more excited.”
One more motivator for good measure.
“Right now everybody wants Michigan in their Elite 8,” UT guard Jordan McRae said. “We’re still against a lot of people.”