'As The Season Turns'

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With eight lopsided wins in their last nine games heading into the Sweet 16, the Tennessee Vols clearly transformed themselves from a group of mismatched parts into a well-oiled machine during the 2013-14 season. But even they can't agree on exactly when the season turned.

"The loss to Texas A&M in overtime at their place," junior post Jarnell Stokes said. "After that we came together as a team and realized that our way wasn't working. We just had to trust each other more. No matter how much talent you have, if you don't play like a team and people don't play with confidence, there's no way you'll win."

Asked what specifically happened after losing in College Station to galvanize the Vols, Stokes replied: "We trusted the scouting report. That was No. 1. No. 2, we started to defend and rotate. I got in a better stance, and my defense picked up a lot. No. 3, I feel like we talked more, we hit shots and we played with more confidence. When we started running we were able to play with a lot more confidence."

So, the second of two losses to lowly Texas A&M was the turning point for the Vols? Nope. Not according to senior wing Jordan McRae.

"I think it was after the Vanderbilt game, when we beat ‘em by 38 points, almost 40 points," he said. "For us to see how the defense helped us that game, it was huge for us."

So, the 76-38 beat-down of the Commodores showed the Vols their ceiling and made them work harder to reach their potential every time out? Nope. Not according to junior wing Josh Richardson.

"I think the turning point was probably on the road at Alabama," he said of a 76-59 win at Tuscaloosa on Feb. 1. "I think that was a big turning point for us. We started playing so much more together. We stopped playing selfish defense, started helping each other and trusting each other a lot more."

So, Tennessee came together as a team Feb. 1 after winning at Alabama … or maybe Feb. 22 after losing at Texas A&M … or maybe March 1 after annihilating Vanderbilt in Knoxville.

Ultimately, the transformation – whenever it occurred – turned a maddeningly inconsistent squad into a cohesive unit. Consider the margins in Tennessee's last eight wins: After beating Mississippi State 75-68 on the road, the Vols overpowered Vanderbilt by 38 points (76-38), Auburn by 28 points (82-54), Missouri by 27 points (72-45), South Carolina by 15 points (59-44), Iowa by 13 points (78-65 in overtime), UMass by 19 points (86-67) and Mercer by 20 points (83-63).

For those keeping score at home, the past eight victories have come by an average margin of 20.9 points per game. Meanwhile, the only setback during the past nine games was a respectable 54-49 loss to top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

Although the turnaround was a long time coming, Tennessee's players deserve considerable credit for improving so dramatically between February and March. Head coach Cuonzo Martin deserves some credit, too. It would've been easy to lose his composure with so many fans bashing him, his staff and his team, especially when an on-line petition surfaced demanding that school officials fire Martin and bring back predecessor Bruce Pearl.

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Martin's seat was hot but his demeanor remained cool. Impressed, his players rallied around him and began playing to save his job.

"We definitely were," McRae said. "Coach Martin is more than a coach to us. The only thing people can see is what he does on the court but he does a lot for us as people. He's helping us become men. When it got to the point where people were saying what they were saying, you've got to fight for somebody like that."

Asked if the head man seemed affected by the negativity surrounding the program, McRae shook his head.

"No," he said. "Never."

Even as many fans were writing off the season and calling for his firing, Martin kept his chin up and his nose to the grindstone. Seeing him maintain complete focus on basketball has helped the Vols do the same.

"It definitely does," McRae said. "No matter what happens in the game – no matter what happens with everything (criticism) going on – he stayed the same. He just told us we had to fight. He never changed what he told us from the first day of practice to now."

Incredibly, Martin's demeanor never changed, no matter how much negativity swirled around his program.

"Not really," Richardson noted. "He said not to pay it any attention, just keep playing how we play."

Senior point guard Antonio Barton also drew strength from witnessing Martin's poise under pressure. Rather than tell the Vols to fight for his job, he told them to fight for a trip to the Final Four.

"He came to practice with the same mentality (during the bad times) as Day One," Barton said. "And he was the one who told us that if we just lock in, come together as a team and trust each other, we can win it all."

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