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Tennessee feeding off its momentum

March 28th, 2014 8:15 am by By Shannon Ryan, Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Tennessee feeding off its momentum

Mercer forward Daniel Coursey (52) shoots against Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball third-round tournament game, Sunday, March 23, 2014, in Raleigh. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

INDIANAPOLIS — The moment Tennessee had waited for didn't elicit much of a response from junior Jarnell Stokes.

When the Volunteers were announced on Selection Sunday as a No. 11 seed, Stokes wasn't feeling that just-happy-to-be-in-the-tournament joy.

"I was somewhat disappointed," he said Thursday. "I felt like we were a better seed than what they gave us. And the cameras were in our face, and I couldn't even get up and cheer. But I knew if we got past the first game, we were going to have momentum going into the second game."

Into the third and fourth games as well, it turned out.

The Vols have been a tournament surprise, advancing the long way to the Sweet 16, where they will face second-seeded Michigan on Friday at Lucas Oil Stadium. They first had to get through the First Four game against Iowa in overtime, and then they beat sixth-seeded Massachusetts by 19 points and 14th-seeded Mercer by 20 points.

"We've been making the most of it," guard Josh Richardson said.

It wasn't long ago that Tennessee was wondering how it lost to teams like bottom-tier SEC opponent Texas A&M and let games slip away against heavyweights Florida and Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Vols fans had their own plans.

A petition to fire coach Cuonzo Martin and rehire former coach Bruce Pearl collected more than 36,000 signatures.

"You never want the coach (who recruited you) to get fired," Stokes said. "I hated the whole petition thing and the bring back Bruce (sentiment). I didn't like any of those talks at all. He works hard at his job, and we respect him."

Few are disrespecting Tennessee — or Martin — now. The Vols have won eight of their last nine games and, if they get to the Elite Eight, Martin will have taken them as far into the tournament as Pearl ever did in six seasons.

Tennessee isn't considered much of a long shot to upset Michigan, a 21/2-point favorite.

The Volunteers' physical strength and size with 6-foot-8 forwards Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, who each weigh 260 pounds, will be pitted against Michigan's perimeter game. The Wolverines have shot 46.7 percent on 3-pointers in their two tournament victories.

"It's kind of just like it's a challenge," said Michigan forward Jordan Morgan, who is listed at 6-8, 250. "They're obviously very good down low and they have a lot of size and are great rebounders. They are a pretty good comparison to what we would see in the Big Ten with their physicality in the paint."

Martin, who is in his third season, credits the players' determination for the tournament run.

"This particular group has a love for each other and they want to be successful as a team," he said. "That's why you see the results you see. But you also have to have talent to do that, and you also have to have the guys embrace what you're trying to do as a coach."

And, of course, he added, "Not give up."

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