The answer is yes, and don't worry, we'll point out exactly why bright and early on Monday morning. But for just a moment, let's put the NCAA Tournament talk aside, and focus on what this win and this run mean for this team.
Almost one year ago, I was among a large group of Tennessee fans who were terrified that if Bruce Pearl was fired, the basketball program would never reach the same heights again. That any new coach would be hitting the reset button, and we would be in for a long rebuilding project and a significant decrease in fan support. That we couldn't keep moving forward.
Today, Cuonzo Martin's first year squad finished a 10-6 SEC campaign with a 68-61 win over a Vanderbilt team that starts four seniors and the SEC's leading scorer. Cuonzo's first season was already a success by the end of last month. But now it's become something much more, bolstered by the strength of two incredible performances this week. And it's become something more among recent history: a 10-6 record in the SEC is better than the 8-8 record Pearl's team put up last year, equal to the 2007 and 2009 teams, and surpassed only by Pearl's teams that earned a two seed, a number one overall ranking, and went to the Elite Eight.
The win today brought home an incredible, beautiful truth: Tennessee Basketball didn't take a step backward under Cuonzo Martin. We keep moving forward.
But hey, don't just take my word for it:
Bruce Pearl: "I would not have done as good a job with these guys this year as Cuonzo Martin has done. I really believe that."— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) March 4, 2012
But that's not all.
Other coaches have been successful here, but the extra dynamic with Pearl was fan support. But today, there was no denying the presence of Big Orange Nation: a legit sellout of more than 22,000, with the arena full to the top row all the way around. It was an incredible crowd to be a part of, one that got to witness the entire team swarm Cameron Tatum as soon as the game ended, then watch Tatum lay down and kiss the halfcourt line before walking off. Certainly not the actions of a man who expects to be playing a home game in the NIT. We said in the preview that if Vandy's guards did their thing and UT's posts did their thing, the game would be determined by an x-factor. And Tatum was that guy when the Vols needed him most, leading his team in scoring on his day.
And just when I thought I couldn't possibly enjoy this win any more, Kevin Stallings opened his mouth:
Head now from two sources that Vandy coach Kevin Stallings yelled "Good luck in the NIT!" to Tennessee fans while leaving the floor today.— Wes Rucker (@wesrucker247) March 4, 2012
It's no secret that Tennessee wanted Stallings when Kevin O'Neill left for Northwestern in 1997. He stayed at Illinois State, then beat Jerry Green's Vols in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 1998. Then he took the Vanderbilt job in 1999.
Now in his thirteenth season in Nashville, Stallings will make his sixth NCAA Tournament this season, along with four trips to the NIT. The Dores have been to the Sweet 16 twice, most recently in 2007. They have never won an SEC Championship. They've never won the East Division.
Tennessee has had four different coaches in that same span. Our record says eight NCAA Tournaments and a pair of NITs, and one of those numbers is going up this year. It also says four Sweet 16s, an Elite Eight, two SEC Championships, four East Division titles, and a number one ranking. And with the win today, Tennessee went to 15-11 against Stallings at Vanderbilt.
So all of that to say, I've been happy every year that he's your coach and not our coach, and never more than today. Tennessee is superior to Vanderbilt in every possible way. See you Saturday in New Orleans.
It's great to be a Tennessee Vol.