Cuonzo Martin's first two Tennessee basketball teams have been a tribute to the cliche: "Tough times don't last; tough people do."
Given up for dead after getting off to a tough 10-12 start in 2011-12, the Vols won eight of their next nine games. They finished the regular season 18-13 overall and 10-6 in conference play, earning a No. 2 seeding for the SEC Tournament.
The 2012-13 season could only be described as deja vu. Minus injured forward Jeronne Maymon, the Vols got off to a tough 11-10 start. They again won eight of their last nine games, however, to finish the regular season 19-11 overall and 11-7 in SEC play.
Two tough starts ... two strong finishes. What's the moral of this story?
"We won eight of our last nine last year and did the exact same thing this year," sophomore wing Josh Richardson said. "I think it shows character. We kept working hard throughout the year, and our hard work is paying off now."
Junior wing Jordan McRae thinks the Vols offset in perseverance what they lacked in elite talent each of the past two seasons.
"Everybody fought hard," he said. "That's what our team does. We don't ever give up."
Maybe, but Tennessee's head man didn't see much fight in his team last November and December. He saw a soft team that wilted without Maymon's tenacity.
"Early in the season, I didn’t think we were a very tough team; I really didn’t," Martin said. "I thought there were a lot of areas we had to improve — scoring the ball, defending, everything you can name. But we got better and the guys stuck with it."
Three players, in particular, stuck with it through the adversity — McRae, sophomore post Jarnell Stokes and junior point guard Trae Golden.
Frustrated by double-teams each time he got the ball, Stokes had some lame games early. He was 2 for 8 in a loss to Oklahoma State, 4 for 9 in a loss to Memphis, 5 for 13 in a loss to Ole Miss and 2 for 7 in a loss at Alabama. He broke loose for 18 points and 11 rebounds Jan. 19 against Mississippi State, however, to start a streak which has seen him post 11 double-doubles in the past 15 games.
McRae also hit his stride in January. He started just one of the first 12 games but played so impressively in a Jan. 4 loss to Memphis (26 points, 4 assists) that he started every game thereafter. He was the SEC's hottest player the past three weeks, averaging 25.8 points and shooting 54.5 percent (24 of 44) from 3-point range over the last six games.
|Point guard Trae Golden's production in the final nine games of the regular season have the Vols with momentum heading into the postseason.|
The most dramatic turnaround, however, belonged to Golden. From Dec. 21 through Jan. 29 he shot just 26.5 percent (18 of 68) from the field and averaged 6.8 points during that 10-game stretch, losing his first-team job in the process.
Showing remarkable resolve, he fought through the slump to spearhead Tennessee's 8-1 finishing kick by averaging 16.6 points, 5.0 assists and just 2.1 turnovers per contest during that stretch.
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect me to not be playing as well as I knew I could," Golden admitted. "But I think the biggest thing is that all of us were mentally tough. We looked at it, we moved past it and we were able to overcome things that I think a lot of teams would've rolled over and not been able to overcome."
Stokes agrees, noting that he, Golden and McRae had to push through adversity for Tennessee to finish with a flourish.
"Somehow guys just manned up — myself, Jordan, Trae — and decided we were going to carry this time like we should have (all season)," Stokes said. "Not having Jeronne affected us a lot but I'd rather start off bad and end good than the other way around."
Minus Maymon's toughness, his teammates had to develop their own. That may be the ultimate key to Tennessee's whirlwind finish.
"I think we have a level of toughness," Martin said. "We have a tremendous level of togetherness as a team and a family. That’s the other reason why you win eight out of the last nine: You have to come together as a team."
Golden is amused that his coach characterized the Vols as a "tough" team.
"Better than being called soft," he said. "I think the biggest thing for us is that we take the identity of our coach. Our practices are physical."
Although Tennessee clearly developed toughness during the season, Golden believes the bigger key was that the Vols developed team chemistry.
"People look at it as toughness," he said, "but when one guy breaks down there is someone there to help him and another person to help that guy. I think more than anything we're just really together."
The SEC Tournament begins with two first-round games Wednesday evening in Nashville. No. 12 seed South Carolina plays No. 13 Mississippi State at 6:30 Central, then No. 11 Texas A&M faces No. 14 Auburn at 9.
Thursday's session begins with No. 8 Georgia facing No. 9 LSU at noon Central. The South Carolina-Mississippi State winner faces No. 5 seed Tennessee at 2:30 Central (3:30 Eastern). No. 7 Arkansas and No. 10 Vanderbilt square off at 6:30, then No. 6 Missouri battles the Texas A&M-Auburn winner at 9.
If Tennessee wins Thursday's game it will advance to Friday's quarterfinals against No. 4 seed Alabama. That tipoff is set for 2:30 Central (3:30 Eastern). No. 1 seed Florida, No. 2 seed Kentucky and No. 3 seed Ole Miss also make their tourney debuts on Friday.
See what Martin had to say at Monday's press conference at Thompson-Boling Arena with the high-definition video from InsideTennessee below: