Just ask the UMass Minutemen. They couldn't contain Stokes (26 points), McRae (21), Richardson (15) or Jeronne Maymon (11) in an 86-67 beat-down at the hands of the Vols on Friday. Antonio Barton showed some flashes. Armani Moore and Darius Thompson provided solid play off the bench. Tennessee can be downright awesome when it exhibits that kind of balance.
"I think it's big," Richardson said. "Darius Thompson came off the bench and gave us big minutes, especially for a freshman. Armani Moore came in and gave us big-time minutes. Even Pops (Ndiaye) came in and gave us big minutes. It (balance) is especially good at this time of year, when guys can't play as many minutes because we've got another game coming up so fast."
Stokes was a virtual one-man wrecking crew versus UMass, grabbing 14 rebounds to go with his career-high 26 points. Still, he readily acknowledges how much more effective he is when his teammates are contributing, too.
"Most definitely," he said." Jordan did a great job, So did Tone (Barton) and Josh. Armani came in and got a big basket. Jeronne got a double-double. That helps out a lot."
Although Mercer is a mere 14 seed, the Bears have an impressive record (26-8) and are riding an emotional high after upsetting third-seeded Duke 78-71 on Friday.
"We understand that Mercer's a very good team and they can hit shots," Stokes said. "I hate playing teams that can hit shots. They make you pay for any defensive breakdowns, so we have to defend very well … no breakdowns."
Mercer point guard Langston Hall seemed to exploit every Tennessee breakdown when the Bears beat the Vols in Knoxville last March, handing them a humbling loss in the first round of the 2013 NIT. Tennessee must play significantly better help defense tonight than it did last March or it will lose again.
"It's huge for us, especially playing against guys who can get in the lane like that," Richardson said. "It's tough, so we'll have to play great team defense. Langston Hall's a great point guard. He can score the ball and he can pass it. They're very experienced and they execute very well on offense."
The Bears are experienced, all right. All five starter are seniors. So, despite starting three seniors and two juniors, the Vols will be the "younger" team tonight.
Although both teams have loads of experience, neither has garnered much respect. Before stunning Duke, Mercer was one of the most obscure teams in the 68-team NCAA Tournament field. The Vols can relate. They are so lightly regarded by most of the national media that it is providing them with extra motivation.
As Stokes put it: "Sometimes the media perception gets to certain teams, and I feel like we're one of those teams."
Maymon couldn't care less what the national media thinks. After wins against Iowa and UMass, he says Tennessee's confidence level is soaring as the Vols enter a game that could earn a Sweet 16 bid.
"Most definitely. We didn't come here to lose," he said. "You can go ask our manager, and he'll tell you the same thing. You can go ask our trainer, and he'll tell you the same thing.
"We didn't come here to lose."