RALEIGH, N.C. — Tennessee is one win from reaching the NCAA basketball tournament's Sweet 16, something that seemed preposterous less than a month ago.
Exactly 29 days ago, the Volunteers lost at Texas A&M, as the Aggies completed a season sweep.
The pinnacle of frustration and growing negativity around third-year coach Cuonzo Martin and the program came after that loss in College Station, but the Vols since have rattled off seven wins in eight games -- the only loss coming to top-ranked Florida -- and face Mercer this evening for a trip to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
"We set goals at the beginning of the year, and no matter what it looks like, you can't let that dictate what it will be," senior forward Jeronne Maymon said in Tennessee's locker room ahead of Saturday afternoon's practice at PNC Arena.
"I think if we didn't have a strong mindset and weren't as tough as we are mentally, I think we probably would have folded and the season could have went downhill. Coach Martin and his staff, they make sure we stay focused and stay locked on the positive things. I always knew we still had a chance to do something special, and that's what we're staying focused on."
Against the 14th-seeded Bears, who stunned third-seeded Duke on Friday, the 11th-seeded Vols have a chance to do that something special.
Despite the success Bruce Pearl had in the six seasons prior to Martin's arrival in 2011, Tennessee would reach the round of 16 for just the seventh time in program history with a win today.
The Vols, then coached by Ray Mears, received a bye into the regional semifinals in 1967, won one game to reach a regional semifinal under Don DeVoe in 1981, reached the Sweet 16 in 2000 under Jerry Green and made three trips there under Pearl in 2007, 2008 and 2010, which was the run to the Elite Eight.
"It hasn't set in that we have the chance to be in the last 16 teams left in America," leading scorer Jordan McRae said.
"I just think it's huge for the program. After the season we had, all the ups and downs, the fact we have a chance at being one of the last 16 teams left is huge. We've been cornered in a lot this year. We've been ruled out a couple times. We're still being ruled out now, so we've just got to go out there and keep fighting."
Tennessee's 86-67 defeat of Massachusetts on Friday was its 23rd victory of the season, and that's happened only four other times (2000, 2007, 2008 and 2010) in program history.
"I'm very happy for the program," All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes said. "We have a tough challenge tomorrow, but we've definitely accomplished a lot. A lot of people were saying we shouldn't even be in the tournament right now, and if so we'll lose in the first game. I try to stay away from tweets and stuff like that, but I've seen where fans were hoping we would lose.
"It means a lot to be where we are right now."
It's where the Vols were after that second loss to Texas A&M that makes this run all the more intriguing.
Tennessee was a very disappointing 16-11 overall and 7-7 in an SEC that barely got three teams into the NCAA tournament, and it would have been easy for the frustrated Vols to fold with just two weeks left in the regular season.
"It was surprising that we struggled some throughout the season," Stokes said. "That was the most surprising. I felt like we always had the talent."
Yet here they are, after rolling through four teams in the bottom half of the SEC standings, South Carolina in the SEC tournament and scuffling Iowa and UMass teams in the NCAA tournament.
"For me, there's no give-up. My mom didn't raise me like that," Martin said. "We don't have that kind of time and energy to give up. You've got to continue to fight in everything you're doing. I like to think I present that to our guys on a day-to-day basis. Not something you necessarily talk about, it's just how you approach life and how you go about your daily business."
Martin, whose three Tennessee teams are now 28-13 in February and March, pointed to his players continuing to come in and work on their own to stay the course.
"When you hit tough times, you've got to refocus, regroup and continue pushing forward," he said. "You've got to continue to fight, and that's all we talk about. We've got to continue to battle. As a staff we're not looking for any excuses. We don't want to hear it. Let's continue to work hard."
Still, it's a pretty drastic flip of the switch for a team that hadn't won more than two straight games in SEC play to have ripped off seven wins in eight games with no room for error and in win-or-go-home tournament settings.
"We always knew the potential we had," McRae said. "It was just a matter of time until we showed it. Everybody bought in on the defensive end, and this is the result."
How unlikely it seemed not that long ago.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...