Fans of the Michigan men’s basketball team aren’t that unfamiliar with Tennessee, the Wolverines’ Sweet 16 opponent. In a first-round NCAA Tournament game just three years ago, Michigan dismantled the Volunteers, 75-45.
But this Tennessee team is a completely different squad, beginning at the top. Michigan’s blowout was a clear enough sign to the Volunteer athletic department that coach Bruce Pearl had lost his team, ushering in the Cuonzo Martin regime.
Martin himself was on the hot seat just a few weeks ago, but three NCAA Tournament wins in the past week have prompted some analysts to label Tennessee the hottest team in America.
The Daily breaks down the Volunteers so you’ll be prepared for Friday’s matchup in Indianapolis.
How Tennessee got in: The Volunteers are one of the nation’s most puzzling teams. They feature a lineup that’s filled with talent — especially in forward Jarnell Stokes, who averages a double-double, and guard Jordan McRae, who shot his way to seven games of 25 or more points — but the team’s effort has come into question at times.
That dichotomy shows in the highs of Tennessee’s wins — including a 35-point December blowout over Virginia, currently a No. 1 seed in the Sweet 16 — and the lows of some of its losses, including a season sweep at the hands of a mediocre Texas A&M team and an early-season loss to UTEP.
Playing in the top-heavy SEC, 11 of the Volunteers’ 12 conference wins were by double digits, six of those by 18 or more. Only one of their 12 losses this season, a 67-41 drubbing at No. 1 Florida, was by double digits.
After inexplicably losing six conference games that landed Martin on the hot seat in Knoxville, Tennessee reeled off wins in six of its last seven. And all those lopsided wins and close losses were enough to land Tennessee at No. 6 in the KenPom ratings — a rating metric designed to predict the strength of a team — a jaw-dropping figure considering the Volunteers squeaked into the Tournament.
How the Volunteers got here: Despite being a No. 11 seed that had to win a play-in game just to make the field of 64, Tennessee is no Cinderella story, no matter what SportsCenter wanted you to believe when it featured the team alongside fellow Sweet 16 participant and mid-major Dayton.
The fact of the matter is that the Volunteers are, again, a talented team that, since the end of February, has finally begun to play up to its potential.
Tennessee began its Tournament path against Iowa in what’s technically the first round, but reserved for the last eight teams in. In that game, the Volunteers needed overtime to get past the reeling Hawkeyes.
It took a late-game comeback for the Tennessee defense to come alive. When it did, it flexed its muscles in style, holding the dangerous Iowa offense to a single point in overtime. In the game’s final 10 minutes, including overtime, the Hawkeyes managed just two field goals.
Two days later in Raleigh, N.C., Tennessee looked like a well-rested team with fresh legs that had a week, not a single day, to ready for its opponent. The Volunteers easily took down No. 6 seed Massachusetts, 86-67, after nearly doubling up the Minutemen in the first half.
Tennessee was handed a third-round gift after Mercer upset Duke. The 14th-seeded Bears were no match for the Volunteers, who got out to a quick start and won easily, 83-63.
Talent inside and out: Last weekend, fifth-year senior Jordan Morgan had to repeatedly answer questions about how he’d stop monstrous Texas forward Cameron Ridley, the key to the Longhorns’ inside-out game. Morgan passed the test with flying colors, and Texas’ offense struggled as a result.
But Friday’s foe should be even tougher. At 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, Stokes has an inch and 25 pounds on Ridley, but the Tennessee junior uses his girth more effectively, is more polished than Ridley and won’t tire easily like the Texas sophomore.
Stokes’ Tournament run has been as strong as any player in the country. After averaging 15.2 points and 10.7 rebounds in the regular season — one of only three BCS-conference players to average a double-double — the junior has averaged 17.7 points and 11.7 rebounds in the Tournament.
While Texas’ talent was limited to its interior players, allowing Michigan to hone in on the paint, Tennessee’s perimeter game is as strong as its interior.
McRae, a senior guard, is capable of putting a team on his back, going off for 30-plus point games twice this season. He scored 20 points against Iowa and 21 against UMass, before an off shooting night limited him to 14 against Mercer. But, as explosive as McRae can be, his high-volume shooting is sometimes enough to stifle the offense.
Guard Josh Richardson, another upperclassman, averaged just 10.1 points in the regular season, but has saved his best for the postseason. He’s averaging 19.3 points in the three-game stretch, rounding out a solid three-headed attack for Tennessee.