Cuonzo Martin on Tennessee's 85-62 win over La. Monroe
What's the steepest climb in college basketball? One possibility: from Louisiana Monroe to Duke.
We'll check back with Tennessee next week for a definitive answer.
The Vols are about to undergo a breathtaking change in altitude — not to mention latitude and longitude.
Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena, Tennessee was dilly-dallying with the Warhawks from ULM for the longest time. The Warhawks haven't ever been around for that "One Shining Moment" scene, at least not that I can recall.
This was supposed to be a blowout, even for a team with Tennessee's modest projections. Wrong. It was 33-33 at halftime. Five minutes into the second half, ULM led 46-44.
"It was a good test,'' UT coach Cuonzo Martin said later, "to gauge the body language.
"You're expected to beat somebody by 30 points and it doesn't happen.''
This night, the Vols passed the body-language test. They roared away at the finish for an 85-62 victory. With 14 seconds left Dwight Miller even stole the ball and raced for a dunk that covered the 21.5-point spread.
The Vols are on a plane today, headed to the Maui Invitational and a Monday date with Duke.
Paradise awaits. But so does certain adversity. Tennessee's body-language is about to face a sterner test.
"You see Duke everywhere,'' said junior guard Skylar McBee, "but I don't think we're gonna hold 'em up on a pedestal.''
We see Duke in the Final Four. We see Duke cutting down nets. We saw Duke ad nauseam on Tuesday night as coach Mike Krzyzewski gained his 903rd coaching victory, breaking mentor Bobby Knight's record for Division I men's coaches.
At least Coach K got that business out of the way and the Vols won't become a historic footnote.
"One less thing to think about,'' McBee acknowledged.
Back to the Warhawks, though. It's obvious Tennessee didn't put ULM on a pedestal.
The Vols were sloppy in the first half. Shots came too quick, turnovers too often. ULM, a program with only nine scholarships due to NCAA academic penalties, just kept hanging around and making baskets.
At halftime, Martin didn't peel the paint off the locker room wall, though he would have been justified in doing so.
"He was cool, calm and collected,'' said McBee, "just like his personality. He stayed positive.''
That last part, staying positive, is big with McBee, who looks forward to being a consistent contributor for the new regime.
He certainly was against ULM. McBee scored a career-high 15 points, hitting a career-high five 3-point baskets. That's the most treys by a UT shooter since Scotty Hopson hit five two years ago this week.
"It's two things,'' McBee said. "One is knowing my role.
"Two is Coach Martin's confidence in me, knowing when I've got an open shot I can take it.''
He got open shots because he ran the floor hard and because his teammates, Trae Golden in particular, did a good job of finding him.
McBee's fourth trey cut into a 41-37 Warhawk lead. His fifth capped a 9-0 run that erased ULM's final lead and put the Vols up 55-48.
By that point, the body language was good, on the court and in the previously silent stands.
"We knew we didn't play up to our potential in the first half,'' McBee said. "I think we responded well.
"We've got a lot of young guys but we stayed positive and picked each other up.''
The guess here is that Duke won't be as likely to wilt in the final 10 minutes. But stranger things have happened.
One even happened in Thompson-Boling Arena two years ago when the undermanned Vols shocked No. 1 Kansas. McBee, then an unheralded freshman, made the biggest shot of them all that night.
Is it a stretch to think that experience might come in handy when Tennessee plays David again to Duke's Goliath?
"It's good to have seen the talent and atmosphere of a game like that,'' McBee said.
"It's about stepping up to a challenge.''
From here to there, it's one heckuva step.