It's called emotion.
Except for volatile senior Jordan McRae, the Vols typically exhibit about the same level of emotion as a department-store mannequin. That low-key approach appears to be changing, however.
The first inkling came during pre-game warmups for Wednesday night's first-round game against Iowa as head coach Cuonzo anxiously shifted his weight from one foot to the other. The second hint came at the start of the second half, when normally mild-mannered Josh Richardson suddenly became the most electrifying player on the floor – displaying histrionics previously foreign to his nature. Even ultra-stoic Jarnell Stokes got into the act. After battling an Iowa player for a loose ball following a missed free throw in the final minute of regulation, he reacted in animated fashion when the ball was ruled out of bounds off the Hawkeyes.
"If anything I did (helped turn the game) it was the loose ball that went out of bounds after the free throw," Stokes said. "I think that was probably a stepping stone in my career."
Reminded of his dramatic reaction to the official ruling, Stokes smiled.
"Yeah, I usually don't show emotion," he said, "but lately I've been showing a lot of enthusiasm."
So has Cuonzo Martin. For three years his critics complained that the Vols would play with more fire if their head man exhibited more fire during games. Well, Martin probably hit a fiery peak Wednesday night. And, as his team pulled away in the final minute of overtime, he hugged the players and turned to face some school officials (including Chancellor Jimmy Cheek) sitting behind the Vol bench. Later, the joy Martin exhibited as he strode into the locker room to celebrate the victory was well beyond what most fans have come to expect.
When a reporter suggested Martin seemed more animated than usual, he replied: "I'm consumed with our players being successful, on and off the court. All of the seniors are graduating and all of the guys have done a great job in the classroom and winning ball games."
Given that emotion is a relative recent acquisition, it's understandable that the Vols probably got a little too hyped up in the first 10 minutes Wednesday night, enabling Iowa to race to a 16-4 lead. Senior point guard Antonio Barton said the Vols suffered from "an adrenalin rush" during that stretch.
"We just had to get settled," he said, "get within our offense and play Tennessee basketball."
Richardson agreed that the Vols came out a little too emotional, especially himself. He was 0 for 5 from the field in the first 20 minutes before going 6 for 8 thereafter.
"I was just trying to go too fast … trying to create too much energy, I guess," he said. "Once I calmed down it came together."
Stokes admits that playing in The Big Dance creates a whole new level of stress.
"I was nervous, I can admit that," he said. "I feel like it sort of hurt me in the first half."
After back-to-back NIT appearances in 2012 and 2013, Tennessee's players were understandably keyed up about playing in college basketball's premier event.
"It was natural," Richardson said. "Now that we're past that game we'll play how we know how to play."
With today's tip-off coming just 39 hours after the Vols concluded an emotionally draining overtime win, many observers assume the team will be at a disadvantage against a UMass squad that has had five days of rest. Tennessee's players say that assumption is misguided.
"I think it was good for us to get our feet wet (against Iowa) with this being our first time here (NCAA field)," senior post Jeronne Maymon said, later adding: "I think it really helps us going into Friday's game – having momentum and already having a win."
Having that new-found emotion may prove advantageous, as well.
GAME NOTES: Today's game tips off at 2:45 in Raleigh's PNC Arena with television coverage provided by CBS…. Eleven seed Tennessee brings a 22-12 record into the game, sixth-seeded UMass a 24-8 record…. Despite the seeding, Las Vegas has installed the Big Orange as a four-point favorite…. Whereas the Vols have won six of their last seven games, the Minutemen have lost three of their last five. They fell 86-79 March 1 at Dayton, 64-62 March 9 to Saint Louis and 85-77 to George Washington in Round 2 of the Atlantic 10 Tournament…. UMass has shot 46.0 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from 3 en route to averaging 76.4 points per game. The Minutemen rank 19th nationally with 5.5 blocked shots per game…. Senior point guard Chaz Williams, a 5-foot-9, 175-pounder, leads UMass in scoring (15.8 points per game) and ranks third nationally in assists (7.0 per game)…. Six-foot-10, 253-pound junior Cady Lalanne averages 11.4 points and 8.0 rebounds. He is shooting 56.0 percent from the field with 70 blocks in 32 games…. Aptly named Trey Davis is shooting a team-best 37.8 percent from 3…. Tennessee beat UMass 83-69 a year ago in the Puerto Rico Classic behind a 24-point, 12-rebound effort from Stokes…. The winner of today's game will face third-seeded Duke on Sunday in the Round of 32, assuming the Blue Devils get past 14th-seeded Mercer in their second-round game.