KNOXVILLE — What a difference a few weeks and some NCAA tournament wins can make.
When Tennessee's basketball Volunteers returned to Knoxville following Sunday night's Sweet 16-clinching win in Raleigh, it was greeted by a crowd, mostly students, of more than 100 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Go back a few weeks, though, when the Volunteers were scuffling, and any crowd awaiting the team probably would have been an angry mob.
It's a little bit different now that Tennessee is preparing to play a Sweet 16 game against Michigan in Indianapolis on Friday.
"Campus is buzzing," guard Josh Richardson said before Tuesday's practice. "I'd say pretty much everywhere we go we're getting high-fives and pats on the back, and it's nice to know you have a big support system behind you here."
Asked if that was different than when the team left for Atlanta and the SEC tournament a couple of weeks ago, Richardson smiled and replied, "Yeah, way different," with a laugh.
Since that second loss to Texas A&M in late February, the Vols have taken on a bit of an us-against-the-world mentality and played through a growing swirl of negativity around the program and third-year coach Cuonzo Martin with an edge, and the players haven't been shy about sharing that sentiment publicly in interviews.
The air around the program obviously is much different now after Tennessee beat Iowa, Massachusetts and Mercer to reach the NCAA tournament's second weekend.
"I've received a lot of attention everywhere I go, and I'm sort of salty about it, I would say," All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes said. "I'm sort of mad about it, because it's people I've been seeing all this team and they're all, 'Hey, Jarnell.' Now when they see me, they get a little more excited.
"You have to stay humble throughout the process, because you have to know it can come and go."
In the eyes of the players, it certainly went more than it did in reality, largely because of a vocal minority of fans that grew in quantity and volume in calling for Martin's job while the team still was scraping for the NCAA tournament and the online petition to bring back popular former coach Bruce Pearl.
Tennessee's final two home games against Vanderbilt and Missouri featured two of the season's largest crowds that were loud and engaged in the games.
"A lot of people are asking for pictures and stuff, more than the usual," leading scorer Jordan McRae said. "People are just excited about everything.
"The fans are really supportive," senior forward Jeronne Maymon added. "Going to the gas station, people that you've never even talked to, like the clerks and stuff, are saying congratulations. People are really happy. It's something new for us."
Some of that negativity certainly appeared to bring the Vols together as a team, and it probably was easy for the players to assume that role.
Now, though, they are having to handle some success before a very important game.
"It's really just staying humble also making them understand you heard the bad," Martin said. "The approach doesn't change. I tell them all the time, 'Whether you're high or low, you have to stay consistent in your approach.' We've got to continue to take care of the task at hand and work extremely hard.
"There's some things you can't control as a coach, and I think some things are good things. As players, you've been knocked down a little bit, so there's nothing wrong with that in my opinion, as long as you're still playing at the level you're capable of playing at. I think on this stage, when you're talking Sweet 16 at this level ... there will be a lot of exposure.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it. You've worked hard to get to this point, and it's part of it. Just continue to stay humble and stay hungry, but those are things we talk about from day one, so it's not like we give them a speech on how to be humble today. That's every day and that's our approach, and we'll still do the things we need to do to be successful."
And given how they've played in the last few weeks, that includes a bit of a bunker mentality.
"Everybody wants Michigan in their Elite Eight, so we're still against a lot of people," McRae said. "We're just fighting for each other, fighting for our coach through all this, and we're making sure we stay together as a family through all this.
"That's the thing about Coach Martin: He's got all that into our brains that we don't change what we do, no matter what happens," he added. "After a loss, we do the same things. After a win, we do the same things. Other than a few more people on campus talking to us, not anything has changed."
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 ...