KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — What a week.
On March 17, the Tennessee men’s basketball team left for Dayton, Ohio, having entered the NCAA tournament by the thinnest of margins. It returned in Monday’s earliest hours, welcomed home by a crowd that had gathered to celebrate a Sweet 16 team.
Before the No. 11 seed Vols (24-12) continue their dance against No. 2 seed Michigan (27-8) on Friday, let’s recap what we learned.
1) Cuonzo Martin is helping himself
The contract isn’t being discussed — yet. But after the Vols tie a bow on a season that took a detour on its way to disappointment and sped to the Sweet 16, a conclusion on Martin’s future at UT must be reached.
Will he remain the Vols coach, or not?
Martin and UT athletic director Dave Hart have declined to discuss the contract. The two meet after every season for a sit-down review. This year there will be much to discuss. The numbers show the rub.
Martin, 42, is in the third year of a five-year deal that in July of 2013 was increased from $1.3 million to $1.35 million. No extension was given at that time.
Despite its circuitous path, Martin’s team made the big dance, fulfilling the expectation Hart set publicly at the start of the season. Martin has also increased his win total every season, from 19 to 20 to 24 (and counting). His current record at UT is 63-40, a winning percentage of 61.2. That ranks third among active SEC coaches, behind only Kentucky’s John Calipari and Florida’s Billy Donovan.
Martin’s salary, however, ranks 11th out of 14 SEC coaches, according to records previously compiled by the News Sentinel.
That will almost certainly change if Martin is to be back for his fourth season in Knoxville.
2) Josh Richardson has elevated his game.
Here’s what Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said about Richardson after the Vols beat Mercer on Sunday:
“Richardson was the MVP of the world tonight.”
The junior entered this tournament with a 9.2 point average and a 44.7 field goal percentage. On college basketball’s biggest stage, he’s averaged 19.3 points and shot 60.6 percent.
3) Free throws are UT’s best friends
Coaches have a phrase about free throws. No one mentions them until they’re missed.
That’s been the case with UT the past three games, as the Vols have mostly refrained from fouling while forcing opponents to send them to the line.
They have made more than twice as many as their opponents have attempted. They have made 72 of 87 from the line in the tournament. Meanwhile Iowa, UMass and Mercer combined to make 28 of 35.
Jordan McRae made six of seven against Iowa. Jarnell Stokes made 12 of 13, including 11 straight, against UMass. Against Mercer, Richardson was the only player who missed one.
The team’s free-throw percentage as a team has increased from 71 to 82.8 percent since the tournament began.
4) Lack of depth not hurting
At the point in the season where depth is supposed to matter most, the Vols seem to be getting by without much. Armani Moore has averaged 14.3 minutes in tournament games. Behind him come Darius Thompson (12.6) and Derek Reese (eight). After that, well, there isn’t really anything after that.
UT’s bench has been outscored 68-19 in the tournament. Still, the Vols have three double-digit wins.
5) Vols are cold from deep.
The Vols have made 13 of 57 treys in NCAA tournament play. Thats’ 22.8 percent.
Nearly half of the successful tries belong to Antonio Barton, who made six of 20. His fellow starting guards, Richardson (3-13) and Jordan McRae (4-18) have also struggled.
UT was a 33.6 percent 3-point shooting team before the tournament started.
Lately, that seems unreachable.