Let's talk about this picture for a minute.
It's GREAT to be a Tennessee Vol!!! Next stop, Indy! #Sweet16Selfie pic.twitter.com/g7KCyptZJb— Cuonzo Martin (@CuonzoMartin) March 24, 2014
People said all year they wanted to see more of this from Cuonzo Martin, and more than anything wanted to see Tennessee's best basketball. Turns out, the two go hand in hand: the Vols have now won 8 of their last 9, the only loss to #1 Florida. When the Vols had to win five straight to get on the dance floor, they did it. When Tennessee had to go to Dayton and win, they did it. And now with two more wins in Cuonzo Martin's first NCAA Tournament, Tennessee is going to the place we all hoped this team and this coach could go: the Sweet 16.
We've spilled enough ink over Bruce Pearl, but today's win ensures we can include Cuonzo in Tennessee reaching the standard he set. Pearl made making the tournament too low a goal for Tennessee Basketball; the Vols made the Sweet 16 three times in his six year tenure, and after 2010 it became the surefire benchmark for a good season. And so here, in year three of a journey that began with us hopeful he'd make the NIT in year two and could have almost ended just before these last nine games, Cuonzo Martin has now returned the Vols to the same standard of success built before him. And we're not done yet.
Smile, big fella. You deserve it, more than any of us will truly know. But thanks for letting us celebrate it with you.
The game that got us there followed a now-familiar script: Tennessee opened the game on an 8-0 run, Mercer fought it to a tie with an 8-0 run of their own and was down just 19-16 halfway through the first twenty minutes. And then Tennessee unleashed a 10-2 run, and Mercer never got closer than nine again. The Mercer kids go home with a memory they'll keep forever over Duke. But they were outmatched and overwhelmed today, much the same as all UT opponents other than Florida and Iowa in regulation in the month of March.
The familiar names did their thing - 14 for Jordan McRae, a 17/18 for Jarnell Stokes who has to be impressing a larger audience with his rebounding prowess in this tournament - and we got good Antonio Barton today, 18 points and 4 of 9 from the arc.
But in six days and three games, Josh Richardson has made The Leap.
Today it was a career high 26 points on 9 of 13 shooting. This week Richardson has 17 against Iowa, 15 against UMass, and 26 today. He averaged nine points per game coming in. And he's still stopping the other team's best player.
Richardson is making you and me and everyone feel better about 2015, on top of how you and me and everyone feel better about Cuonzo and the future. But the future is still the future. In the present, this program advances to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last eight years, and this team playing its best basketball is a threat every night. Tennessee is now sixth in Ken Pomeroy's rating, fifth among teams still dancing. These Vols are the real thing.
There will be plenty of time to scout what's next in Indianapolis. And man, you want an even bigger reason to be excited? How about Charles Woodson's alma mater who ended our last tournament run in spectacular fashion? How about Rick Pitino, the single most successful coach against the University of Tennessee in football or basketball? And how about Tennessee's biggest rival just one game away?
We'll get to all that. But the best part of making the Sweet 16 is the entire week the season gets extended and the way we get to celebrate it. And right now, this team, this coach, and this program deserve our very best celebration.
And we're more than happy to give it.
I'm so proud of this basketball team. Go Vols.