Cuonzo Martin talk about making improvements this season
Cameron Tatum on this season and upcoming game against LSU
BATON ROUGE, La. — The Tennessee men's basketball team arrived in Louisiana on Tuesday night, but LSU coach Trent Johnson has seen the Vols coming for quite some time.
"I remember watching them over in Maui (in November), and I was like 'Woo,' " Johnson said at his Monday news conference. "You can say that there was a level of toughness there, and there were some guys that could play.
"This was definitely going to be a team to be reckoned with."
Johnson's hunch has proved correct, with the Vols (16-13, 8-6 SEC) having won six of their past seven games entering their game Wednesday (TV: CSS, 9 p.m.) against the Tigers (17-11, 7-7) on Senior Night at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
UT first-year coach Cuonzo Martin said he knew he had the pieces after the Vols played in the EA Sports Maui Invitational (Nov. 21-23), but not everything was in place — until recently.
"We didn't have a level of team togetherness, passion for one another," Martin said. "Where you say, 'I really wanna see my teammate be successful before I see myself have success.'
When you have that, you have results.
"You start to play together, you don't worry about if your shot is falling or not; you're just playing basketball."
Tennessee is in position to finish in the top four of the SEC standings, which would earn the Vols a first-round bye at the league tournament (March 8-11) in New Orleans.
Team chemistry, on and off the court, has been the overriding factor in UT's late-season run.
"I think for some teams, this time of year can become monotonous, when you're doing a lot of the same things in practice, and you've been working hard throughout the season," Martin said. "But the thing for us is that our guys really enjoy being around each other.
"The reason they don't want this season to end is they're out on the floor playing hard and having fun playing together."
While the Vols' streak of consecutive NCAA appearances is in jeopardy of ending at six seasons, UT can clinch a winning record Wednesday that would qualify the team for a bid to the NIT.
The NIT, like the RPI ratings index, does not count the Vols' win over Chaminade as a victory because of that program's status as a Division II school.
Whatever the scenario, UT fifth-year senior Cameron Tatum hasn't lost faith, even when the team dropped three of its first four SEC games.
"Even when times were tough, we said to ourselves it was a long season," Tatum said. "I knew we had talent and we could play with anybody. It was all about our team getting chemistry."
Sophomore Jordan McRae, who has come off the bench to score in double figures in six of the past nine games, said it was a matter of maturation and understanding.
"We've learned to play smarter," McRae said. "Everyone is learning each others' tendencies a lot more. We know who can hit what shots and from where."
Freshman Jarnell Stokes remembers the puzzled looks he drew from the media when, after enrolling midterm and joining the team in January, he said the Vols would make a postseason tournament.
From the outside, Tennessee's résumé was hardly appealing at the time. But inside the locker room, Stokes saw and heard good things happening.
"I saw things in the program when I came here, from both the coaches and the players," Stokes said. "Everyone was buying into Coach Martin and practicing hard. The guys had really bought into the defensive mindset."
Martin continues to challenge his players to focus — "We're playing about 75 percent as well as we can play on defense," he said — but Johnson sees a battled-tested team when he watches scouting tapes.
"Their mental and physical toughness has been very impressive throughout the year," Johnson said. "Coach Martin has done an exceptional job, in my opinion, in terms of implementing his philosophy. That group has done an exceptional job buying in, in terms of where they were projected to finish, what they lost and everything he inherited.
"This will probably be as physical of a group we will play all year."
Martin has his concerns about LSU's athleticism and toughness, too.
"It's a physical team, a talented team, and they play really well at home," Martin said. "They go inside-outside, score the ball and they can get out in transition. They seem to play at a faster pace at home.
"Their big guys can really crash the glass, so I think for us to be successful, we're going to have to focus on boxing out and play really good team defense."
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32