For a team that touted its intentions to “Make a Statement” as its season motto, the day has arrived.
That statement? Now would be a good time to make it.
Lugging around an 11-10 record and a 3-6 SEC mark three weeks ago, Tennessee men’s basketball has reeled off five straight league wins. Suddenly the Vols (16-10, 8-6) are hot. Suddenly the Vols are drawing the gaze of national pundits.
Suddenly the showdown Tuesday (TV: ESPN, 9 p.m.) with No. 8 Florida at Thompson-Boling Arena is certifiably a big game.
“This is the most important ballgame on our schedule at this point,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Monday. “After this, we’ll look forward to the next game. I’ve never been a guy (to say) it’s a must-win game, but you’ve got to win the game.”
Various theories have explained Tennessee’s resurgence — deft point guard play from junior Trae Golden, sophomore Jarnell Stokes playing like the NBA prospect he was touted to be, a switch to four-guard sets enabling more up-tempo play and better offensive spacing.
According to multiple members of the team, though, there is an additional, unquantifiable cause.
“We’re more of a brotherhood, definitely,” sophomore guard Josh Richardson said Monday.
“We’ve been holding each other accountable,” added fellow guard Jordan McRae, a junior.
There was no lack of criticism for the Vols’ early season woes. Twitter spouted off. Message boards spewed. They heard it. Even if they say they didn’t.
As the losses mounted, including five by six points or less, relations grew strained. Richardson explained that through the troubles, “There were some guys that really couldn’t take criticism from other guys on the team.”
No details were offered, but those strifes are “not a problem anymore,” according to Richardson.
Martin has taken notice. Standing on a Reed Arena court covered with four overtimes worth of sweat following last Saturday’s 93-85 win at Texas A&M, he was asked about the growing family atmosphere his players claim to be experiencing.
“I see it,” Martin said. “You can’t control the other stuff. All you do is lock-in on those other guys in the locker room. Those are the ones you’re doing battle with. That’s what my program is built on.”
Brothers, teammates, whatever — the Vols will need to play as one to beat the eighth-ranked Gators. Sitting atop the SEC at 12-2 and 22-4 overall, Florida averages 74.0 points in league games while allowing just 53.4.
But it’s not all sunny. The Gators will be without freshman guard Michael Frazier II (concussion) and junior forward Will Yeguete (knee), coach Billy Donovan confirmed Monday. The lineup is still bolstered by such names as Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Patric Young and Mike Rosario, but Donovan will need some reserves, likely Braxton Ogbueze and Dillon Graham, to step into a rotation that’s been whittled to six regulars.
“Six guys is not enough to go to Knoxville with,” Donovan told The Gainesville Sun.
Martin made it clear, however, that even with a shortened bench, Florida is still Florida.
“You’re talking about a potential Final Four team coming in — a team that you feel like you can beat and you have a great opportunity to continue to add to your NCAA profile as an NCAA tournament team,”
In an updated ranking provided to the News Sentinel by ESPN resident bracketologist Joe Lunardi, Tennessee is the No. 13 team resting outside the current projected tournament field.
Given where they’ve been, that alone, is an accomplishment.
“(Not giving up) is a hard thing to do when you’re struggling,” Martin said. “You can have different kinds of emotion in the locker room, with some guys going this way, other guys going the other way. But these guys stuck together and I give them the utmost credit for that.”
At the conclusion of every UT practice since his hiring, Martin blares his whistle and hollers, “Stack it up!” The team convenes at midcourt for a final message. After, all hands converge in the huddle and a different motto — “Together we attack!” — fills the air.
Over the past three weeks, the message has resonated.
“For a while, we were just saying it because he told us to,” McRae said. “But now we’re starting to realize what it means. We don’t have a LeBron or a Kobe on this team. If we want to win games, we have to do it together.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.