A few moments after Tennessee’s 83-63 win over Mercer on Sunday evening, Coach Cuonzo Martin showed more emotion than he has shown in all of his three seasons as the Volunteers head coach. He actually wept and even hugged U.T. Athletic Director Dave Hart. He was both happy and I’m sure very relieved as his team made the NCAA’s “Sweet 16.” A much smaller man would have been tempted to tell all his detractors to “shove it” or something much worse. The man has taken more than his share of criticism this season as his Vols were forced to prove time and again why they actually belonged in the field of 64 teams. Now they’re 3-0 in this year’s “Big Dance” and will face Michigan this Friday in Indianapolis.
Some of the criticism was justified as his team lost several games in the middle portion of the season they should have won. They closed strong winning their last four regular season games and for the first time in years made a good showing in the SEC Tournament. Going into the next round of the NCAA Tournament, Tennessee is playing as well as any team in the country.
How has it happened? Why has Tennessee started playing this well? Where has Josh Richardson been all season? Those are just three of the many questions people have been asking in the past few days. I can’t give a definitive answer to any of those questions, but I’ve been around long enough to see this before. If you’re a number one or two seed, you never want to face a team that is on a big roll like Tennessee is. Real bracket-busters are the teams that get hot at the right time of the year, and Tennessee is certainly hot at the right time. As for Josh Richardson, he’s been there all along. He has been the Vols’ shut-down defensive player, always assigned to the opponents’ best scorer. He’s one of the main reasons Tennessee has been one of the nation’s best defensive teams all season long, but he has now become one of their big “go-to” scorers.
In addition to Richardson’s great play, junior power forward Jarnell Stokes seems to be a man or even a superman on a mission. He has been as dominate as any big man I’ve ever seen in the NCAA tournament, and he seems to be determined to carry this team on his shoulders all the way to the Final Four.
Back in early November I wrote that this could really be a fun year for Tennessee basketball. This team had the potential to make a strong run in the post-season, even to the Final Four. One month ago, I wouldn’t have given this team any chance at all to make the “Sweet 16”, but here they are facing Michigan with a chance to advance to the “Elite Eight”.
No matter how this turns out, it has been a lot of fun for Tennessee basketball fans. The real negative fans, and you know who you are, are already saying things like, “Well, he better enjoy it now, ‘cause they’re going to be awful next year.” Maybe expectations won’t be as high next year and a trip to the NIT will be the best they can hope for. Or, maybe they will be pretty darn good. Robert Hubbs III will be a factor to deal with next year and perhaps Josh Richardson can remain a “go-to” scorer. My advice is to enjoy the moment…..a moment that no one ever thought would happen, because next season is a long time away.
Randy Smith has been covering sports on radio, television and print for the past 45 years. After leaving WRCB-TV in 2009, he has written two books, and has continued to free-lance as a play-by-play announcer. He is currently teaching Broadcasting at Coahulla Creek High School near Dalton, Ga.
His career has included a 17-year stretch as host of the Kickoff Call In Show on the University of Tennessee’s prestigious Vol Network. He has been a member of the Vol Network staff for thirty years.
He has done play-by-play on ESPN, ESPN II, CSS, and Fox SportSouth, totaling more than 500 games, and served as a well-known sports anchor on Chattanooga Television for more than a quarter-century.
In 2003, he became the first television broadcaster to be inducted into the Greater Chattanooga Area Sports Hall of Fame. Randy and his wife Shelia reside in Hixson. They have two married children, (Christi and Chris Perry; Davey and Alison Smith.) They have three grandchildren, Coleman, Boone and DellaMae.
To contact Randy: firstname.lastname@example.org