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The Sudden Transformation of Tennessee Basketball

Jarnell Stokes has many great qualities. But my favorite among the early returns is the way he grins like a ten year old trying not to grin almost every time he scores.

Seriously, watch the highlights from Saturday's win over UConn. Stokes looks all business as usual after his first two baskets, but once he starts taking over, he can't help himself. It's like he can't believe this is all really happening this fast. It's okay, we can't believe it either. You want to say act like you've been there before...but he hasn't. And neither have we.

We've won before, sure - the last six years will attest to that. But the way these wins are coming is completely new. It's what we heard and hoped we would get from Cuonzo Martin...but this soon against these teams? After the month of December we had around here? Almost all of us were ready to chalk this year up to the reset button and look forward to 2013. In our poll on January 6 - just seventeen days ago - the leading prediction for Tennessee's SEC record was "4-12 or worse". If I had made 3-13 an option, it might have been even darker. And hey, I ranked them 11th out of 12 in the same post, the exact same spot the media put them in during the preseason. The Vols looked the part.

In the last seventeen days, Tennessee is just 2-3. But it looks - and boy, does it feel - like everything has changed.

Back in Maui, the Vols almost beat Memphis playing a version of the Bruce Pearl basketball they knew (mandatory note: Pearl remains the most successful coach in the history of the program. This is not a condemnation of his coaching style. You can love Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin. I promise. You can.) Jeronne Maymon almost beat them by himself as the game raced into the 90s in double overtime. Memphis shot 51.4% from the floor that day, enough to beat the Vols by a deuce. But it gave us hope that maybe the Vols could keep pace playing the same old basketball: up tempo, lots of threes and athletes, little discipline.

By the time the Memphis rematch rolled around, the Vols were 7-6 with losses to Oakland, Charleston, and Austin Peay. And in the second half on Beale Street, Memphis excelled at the Bruce Pearl brand of basketball, and Tennessee was left in the dust. The Tigers didn't even shoot as well in the rematch - 47.4% - but it was more than enough, because on the other end of the floor the Vols went 5 of 21 from the arc and turned the ball over 15 times. Memphis turned it over 16 times...and still won by 18.

You rarely see the switch truly flip in sports. We talk about it all the time because we want to believe it can happen, but it's an illusion more often than not. You may notice a trend developing as it happens, or see a young team naturally mature and progress, but it's very rare to see a team that was, in its core identity, one way one day and completely different the next.

So it is with great appreciation and admiration that I say that whatever happened between Memphis and Florida absolutely flipped the switch for this team, and changed the course of the season and the early stages of the Cuonzo Martin era.

Here are Tennessee's defensive numbers:

  • First 14 games: 69.5 ppg allowed, 352 of 801 FG (43.9%), 83 of 224 3PT (37.0%), 11.7 turnovers per game
  • Last 5 games: 59.4 ppg allowed, 105 of 273 FG (38.4%), 22 of 80 3PT (27.5%), 12.8 turnovers per game
Again, remember who we've played: four ranked teams plus a road trip to Athens. And suddenly, the Vols are giving up ten fewer points per game, forcing teams to shoot under 40% from the floor and under 30% from the arc. And as you can see, we're not doing it with BruceBall, with pressure and a ton of turnovers. We're doing it with hard, physical, #playhard man-to-man defense.

Sure, they changed the starting lineup. And yes, Jarnell Stokes is a big part of this story. But remember, it started without Stokes, who did not play in the win against Florida and the close loss in Starkville, and probably has more defensive breakdowns than anyone on the team right now due to simple inexperience.

The biggest difference appears to be belief. Somewhere between Memphis and Florida, the Vols bought what Cuonzo Martin has been selling all along. And the returns have been immediate. Before the Gators, the Vols didn't embrace defense. Now, it's their total identity.

So while all of us are grinning right alongside Jarnell and can't believe how good this kid is right away, it's even better that Stokes remains the secondary story. The primary story is, when your team plays us, you'll spend most of the game wondering why you suck so much on offense today. As danmarcel pointed out in our postgame thread, it's not you, it's us.

Tennessee has been a fan of the close game all year. But now that we've seen it in January, against this gauntlet, we can continue to fully believe that this team will have a chance to beat any team on any night.

Right now, that's a true statement in Thompson-Boling Arena. The next step? Do it on the road.

Lucky us: we're in Nashville tomorrow and Lexington next Tuesday.

Ask me about the NCAA Tournament when we're on our way out of Rupp Arena and done with the murderous month of January. But I will say this right now: this team needs to go 8-8 in the SEC to qualify for the NIT. From what we've seen the last five games, that's no longer too much to ask. The goal on January 23 isn't the NIT, however. It's to take our show on the road, win the next game, and continue to see exactly how good we can be...not next year, but right now.

So yeah, Jarnell Stokes is an amazing story. And yeah, if we could shoot free throws at all we might even win some of these games going away. And I mean "going away" in the defensive sense, of course. You could see UConn's shooters get frustrated in the second half from simply not being used to scoring so few points. The good news is, we'll rarely see a combo like Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier that's capable of knocking down such difficult shots. The bad news is, Vanderbilt's backcourt is probably as close as it gets on our schedule, and they're next in Memorial.

But on the other end of the floor, Stokes is only going to get better...and, uh, he's pretty good right now. And the win over UConn helps ensure the sort of effort this defense and this identity requires will still be there into the month of February, because the Vols can still have something to play for. Much like the win over the Gators, that game yesterday was a real win over a real opponent, and can hopefully create real momentum for this basketball team.

Even at 9-10 and 2-3 in their last, is this basketball team fun to watch. Pearl's teams were too, in a totally different way. But this is blue collar stuff, the sort of full intensity defense that demands respect and has begun to receive it from its own hard-to-please fanbase. In five games, Cuonzo Martin has flipped the switch and made us believe that Tennessee Basketball has a new identity...and that identity can win.

Now let's see what they can do on the road.