The fact the Vols have improved their record to 18-13 and their RPI to 75 in the three months since then is not a credit to their athleticism ... or their talent ... or their experience. Ultimately, it's a credit to their grit. They have faced several opponents who were better in recent weeks; they have not faced one who was tougher. They don't expect to, either.
"Now that would be a sight to see," junior power forward Jeronne Maymon said with a laugh. "Our coach is very tough, and we try to take on his mindset. I don't think there's too many coaches out there tougher than Coach (Cuonzo) Martin."
Martin developed his players' toughness by directing a preseason camp that resembled a Marine boot camp. The pace left one freshman gasping for breath, which resulted in him being banished from the rest of that day's practice. The sheer physicality of workouts eventually resulted in a broken nose for first-team point guard Trae Golden.
Through it all, the Vols gradually became tougher, physically and mentally.
"In our preseason workouts there's no magic tricks; they're not jumping out of airplanes or anything like that," Martin deadpanned. "But we talk mental toughness all the time."
By pushing the Vols to their physical limits on the practice floor, Martin made them learn to cope with fatigue and stress. Nothing they encounter in games will be more taxing than what they routinely faced in those early workouts.
"I think that helps you this time of year because you're so mentally tough," the coach said.
Tennessee's toughness appeared to carry the day in Saturday's 68-61 upset of Vanderbilt at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"I think the story of the game is they were just physically tougher than we were at every spot," Commodore head man Kevin Stallings said. "You can't win if you get out-physicalled at every spot.... Congratulations to them. They played harder and tougher than we did."
Maymon agreed that toughness was the winning edge for the Vols, whose physicality produced a 40-30 rebound advantage and helped limit the talented Commodores to 39-percent shooting.
"It was definitely a point of emphasis," he said. "Coach told us when we go out there to make sure you make your presence known so that they know we're here to play ball for real. So we tried to establish that early."
Because they lack overwhelming talent, the Vols often prevail by imposing their will on an opponent. Relying on dogged determination and superior stamina, they essentially grind their foes into submission. This enabled them to post two come-from-behind wins in the past two weeks — rallying from a 13-point deficit in Game 28 versus Ole Miss and from a 15-point deficit in Game 30 at LSU.
As Martin explained: "If we get down 10 points, 15 points in a game, I just say, 'Let's walk 'em back down.' We don't need to fuss about it or throw trash around the locker room."
Senior wing Cameron Tatum believes the team's knack for the comeback is a testament to its combative nature, noting: "It's just resiliency, the fire to keep fighting each and every possession."
The fighting spirit that enabled the Vols to battle back from bad starts in several games also enabled them to battle back from a bad start to the 2011-12 season. Tennessee played eight games against ranked opponents en route to a 10-12 overall record and 2-5 SEC mark through the end of January.
Noting that "Sometimes you have to take your lumps," Martin added: "Some people said maybe we shouldn't have gone to Maui or played some of those road games, but I think it helps your character and your level of toughness. I just think you have to go through with it."
Once it survived the gauntlet that was November, December and January, Tennessee began to thrive. The Vols have won eight of their last nine games to achieve an 18-13 overall record, a 10-6 SEC record and a No. 2 seeding for the conference tournament.
"That definitely shows the perseverance we have on this team," freshman Jarnell Stokes said. "We weren't supposed to be No. 2 in the SEC. If you read the magazines in the preseason we were supposed to be number 11 out of 12. That just shows the perseverance we have on this team."
Tatum thinks that perseverance, coupled with a heavy dose of toughness, can carry this Vol squad a long way in postseason play.
"That's what we've got to hang our hat on," he said. "That's what Coach Martin is all about: If you're playing hard, you don't have to look up at the scoreboard because it will take care of itself."