Vols overachieve with 2nd-place finish in SEC

BETH RUCKER AP Sports Writer Published:

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Tennessee. Forgive the Volunteers for being a bit ahead of schedule.

After being picked in the preseason to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference, Tennessee won eight of its final nine games to end up in second place and earn a coveted first-round bye in the conference tournament.

"Eight out of the last nine games? That's impressive in any league," first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said. "It's a credit to our guys for really staying focused and finding ways to win games. Also, the guys did a great job from start to finish of the season of getting better. As a coach, that's what you always want to see, guys continuing to make progress every single day."

Tennessee (18-13) will face either Mississippi or Auburn on Friday in the SEC tournament quarterfinals.

Expectations for Tennessee were low this season after coach Bruce Pearl, who took the Vols to six straight NCAA tournaments, was fired for lying to NCAA investigators.

The Vols also lost six players from last year's squad, including forward Tobias Harris, now with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. What remained was a roster full of unproven players, underachieving players and five new players that hardly anyone knew much about.

So when Tennessee was picked to finish 11th in the league, Martin didn't know whether to argue with the assessment or agree with it.

"I don't know what I really saw, to be honest with you," he said. "You're talking about a new team, a new staff, a new system. It's not an easy thing, so you learn on the fly."

Tennessee looked the part of a team that would finish 11th in the SEC midway through the season. The Vols went on a four-game losing skid, dropping contests at Oakland and College of Charleston and -- worst of all -- at home against an Austin Peay team that had been 0-9.

Just in time for the SEC season to start, Tennessee really began to embrace Martin's defense-first approach, and it paid off quickly with a surprise 67-56 win against then-No. 13 Florida on Jan. 7. The Vols continued to struggle away from home, but finally got a road victory with a 75-70 win at Florida on Feb. 11.

The win in Gainesville helped set the tone as Tennessee won eight of nine, including a 74-69 overtime victory at LSU on Wednesday and a grinding 68-61 win against Vanderbilt on Saturday. Now there's talk about the Vols possibly making it into the NCAA tournament.

"Cuonzo's doing an unbelievable job of setting the tone and setting the stage of what he wants that program to be about," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "That's just happening quicker than probably what he even thought. But that team will be a team to reckon with. No one will want to play them in the NCAA tournament."

The improvement hasn't just come from a bigger focus on defense. The entire Tennessee rotation has improved, with players like sophomore point guard Trae Golden and junior forward Jeronne Maymon developing into all-SEC caliber talent. The Vols are also working together better as a team and play with an on-court chemistry that was missing during their disappointing nonconference stretch.

Tennessee also got a major boost from Jarnell Stokes, a highly touted power forward prospect from Memphis who graduated high school a semester early and joined the Vols in January. Stokes, who picked Tennessee over Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky and Memphis, was named SEC player of the week after averaging 14.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, three blocks and 1.5 steals last week.

"He's really helped from that standpoint because you have to identify him on the floor," Martin said. "When our guards are penetrating the lane, it's hard to leave Jeronne and Jarnell because they can rebound and make plays."