INDIANAPOLIS — When the Tennessee men’s basketball team hit a stretch in February where it struggled, it didn’t fold.
When it came to handling its potential as a postseason team, it balanced delicately on the proverbial bubble, a team that teetered on the edge of sneaking into the NCAA tournament or earning a high seed in the NIT.
Then it made the NCAA tournament, one of eight teams to qualify for the 68-team field by virtue of a play-in game.
Now Tennessee is on a tear.
The No. 11 Volunteers (24-12) face No. 2 Michigan (27-8) at 7:15 today in the third round of the Midwest Regional at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Volunteers last made the NCAA tournament in 2011, when Michigan thrashed Tennessee 75-45 in the first round. Four days later, Tennessee fired then-coach Bruce Pearl after he was charged by the NCAA with unethical conduct. On March 27, 2011, Tennessee hired Purdue assistant Cuonzo Martin as its coach.
“I’ve been watching Cuonzo and this team develop over these years, and [Tennessee has] got such great experience on it, it’s something that is frankly so important to the success right now,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, whose team has won nine of its last 10 games. “I looked at our game with Tennessee [three] years ago and to see if anybody was around, and it’s such a great, strong statement for who they are.
“It shows these kids have worked their tails off to get to this point, and that’s really a credit to Cuonzo and their whole basketball program.”
Yet some of Tennessee’s players didn’t regard an NCAA tournament bid as an invite to dance. Some of them also looked at it as a snub.
“I was somewhat disappointed,” Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said. “I felt like we were a better seed than what they gave us. And the cameras were in our face, and I couldn’t even get up and cheer. But I knew if we got past the first game we were going to have momentum going into the second game, that’s exactly what happened.”
Many didn’t pick the Volunteers to move beyond the “First Four” in Dayton. But they’re 8-1 since Feb. 26, including tournament wins against Iowa, Massachusetts, and Mercer.
“Any team right now during the tournament, if they made it here, then they’re a great team,” Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said. “So I think we do a great job not looking at any numbers or anything like that, just going out and playing as hard as we can, because every team from now on, I believe, is going to be a close game.”
Against Michigan, Josh Richardson will be assigned to defend Wolverines guard Nik Stauskas, who averages 17.4 points with a 3-point percentage of 45.1 (87 for 193).
“Michigan’s offense pretty much flows through him,” said Richardson, who averages 10.1 points. “He's their best perimeter scorer, probably their best passer, and I think it would be critical to run him off the 3‑point line as well as [Caris] LeVert. They’re probably their two best outside scorers.”
Stokes (15.2 points, 10.7 rebounds) will challenge Jordan Morgan’s emergence as a presence in the paint for the Wolverines. Morgan has filled in for the injured Mitch McGary, who likened the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Stokes on Thursday to a “fridge on wheels.”
“I don’t think Jordan Morgan gets the credit he deserves as a skilled big man because of probably how the offense is set,” Martin said. “He can do a lot of things. For us, he’s a key in what we’re trying to do to stop those guys.
“Even though they have great perimeter guys, he’s very valuable in what they do.”
The Volunteers also have some momentum on their side. They overcame a stretch in February where they went 2-4, a span that Martin believes helped build the mettle of his team.
“When you lose games by two or three points, you’ve got to get stops on the defensive side of the ball,” Martin said. “There’s a lot of things involved with winning down the stretch.
“I think for those guys, they stayed consistent. We continue to watch film. It was, ‘Let’s figure out a way to correct this,’ so when it presented itself again, we were able to make the adjustments and have success.”