Is Tennessee the Most Dangerous “Play-in” Team Since VCU in 2011?Posted by David Changas on March 18th, 2014
In 2011, the field for the NCAA Tournament was expanded from 64 to 68 teams, and the NCAA decided to call the first four games, played on the Tuesday and Wednesday following Selection Sunday, the “First Round” –thus creating the comical idea that some 60 teams receive byes into the second round. Everyone is wise to this, of course, and realizes the “First Four,” as the games are also named, are, in actuality, four “play-in” games. That year, upstart VCU snuck into one of the NCAA Tournament’s last four at-large spots, beat co-#11 seed USC in Dayton, and proceeded to win four more times in advancing to the school’s first Final Four. Since VCU’s historic run took place three seasons ago, it appears no team may be as well-equipped to duplicate the Rams’ feat as Tennessee this year. Prior to the season, the Volunteers were, in most places, considered a Top 25 team, and a shoo-in for the Big Dance. Things didn’t play out as expected, however, and Tennessee had to go 5-1 down the stretch – with the only loss coming to overall #1 seed Florida – to earn one of the last bids to the Tournament. Now that they’ve made the field, could this be the start of a run that could put all questions about Cuonzo Martin‘s job status to rest?
Based upon Tennessee’s recent play, which saw the Vols destroy its last four regular season opponents and South Carolina in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament by an average of 23 points, and gave #1 Florida a great test before falling short, there is evidence to suggest it may be. The Volunteers are experienced, starting three seniors and two juniors, and talented, with two first-team all-SEC performers in guard Jordan McRae (18.6 PPG) and Jarnell Stokes (14.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG) — one of two SEC players to average a double-double this season. They also have another rebounding stalwart in fifth-year senior Jeronne Maymon, who missed the 2012-13 campaign as a result of microfracture surgery. Maymon has struggled to regain his form, but he has shown signs lately of regaining some of his old skill set. The bulk Tennessee has on the inside with Stokes and Maymon presents a significant challenge for each of its opponents.
In addition to the excellent interior play one of they keys to Tennessee’s recent performance has been the play of Antonio Barton, a guard who transferred from Memphis and who was expected to fill the void left by the departure of Trae Golden to Georgia Tech. Barton struggled with his role for most of the year, but started to find his rhythm down the stretch after Martin reinserted him into the starting lineup. Although he struggled to score in Atlanta at the SEC Tournament, his improved performance from the position is a key to Tennessee’s success. The Volunteers have also picked things up on the defensive end, holding their last six opponents to a paltry 33.7 percent shooting from the field.
Ken Pomeroy has documented how unusual of a case Tennessee represents. The Vols currently sit at 13th in his ratings, yet barely made the field as one of the last at-large teams selected. The Volunteers’ offensive (No. 29) and defensive efficiency numbers (No. 16) suggest that they should are playing like a top-four seed in their region. But losses to UTEP, Vanderbilt, and twice to Texas A&M, coupled with a conference that offered too few challenges, has resulted in Tennessee in Dayton. Their numbers compare favorably with first-round opponent Iowa (No. 126 in defensive efficiency), and suggest that the Volunteers should be able to score on the Hawkeyes. If they can win that game, they would appear to match up favorably with No. 52 UMass. From there, Tennessee would likely have to face Duke in its own backyard of Raleigh, but there’s no reason Martin’s team cannot compete with the Blue Devils. If they can pull off an upset in the round of 32 and sneak into the Sweet Sixteen, certainly anything can happen.
With so much speculation about Martin’s future floating around the program for most of the season, Tennessee finally started to play to its potential when its back was against the wall. The players have talked about how all the sniping and criticism of Martin brought the team together, but why it took so long for the team to gel is a mystery to many who follow the program. The turnaround was very nearly too late, but it was just enough to sneak into the field of 68. Had this team played the way it did down the stretch for the entire season, it wouldn’t have had to worry about a Monday trip to Dayton, but now that it’s here, the Vols should focus mostly on looking forward. If there’s any reason to look back at all, though, Tennessee might want to focus on VCU’s run three years ago to know that a deep run is possible from their exact position.