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NCAA men’s basketball tournament: For Sweet 16 Vols, what a month can do

RALEIGH A month ago, Tennessee was far away from the Sweet 16 berth it qualified for Sunday night with an 83-63 whipping of Mercer.

The Volunteers were 7-7 in the SEC on Feb. 24. Not only were they on the bubble, but so was coach Cuonzo Martin. He had neither the March Madness tournament success nor the entertaining courtside histrionics of former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. The pesky little fact that Pearl got fired amid an NCAA investigation didn’t stop a number of Tennessee fans from starting a “Bring Back Bruce” movement.

Lord have Mercer, but how things have changed.

No. 11 seed Tennessee sent No. 14 seed Mercer reeling out of the tournament Sunday, 83-63 – the Volunteers’ second straight dominant performance in Raleigh. The Volunteers won three games in two cities within five days to advance to the Sweet 16.

“Good ol’ Raleigh Top,” one banner read in Tennessee’s fan section, a play on the Volunteers’ fight song lyrics. And Tennessee found a second home in Raleigh over the weekend, where the Vols looked a lot more like a potential Final Four team than the inconsistent squad they were only a few weeks ago. The Volunteers (24-12) have won eight of their past nine games, and the only loss was an SEC tournament squeaker to overall No. 1 NCAA seed Florida.

When a reporter asked if Tennessee should be considered a Cinderella story – after all, the Volunteers and Dayton are the two lowest seeds left in the tournament – Tennessee’s big man Jeronne Maymon growled: “There isn’t really no story here. We’re supposed to be here. We got one of the best teams in the nation.”

It looked that way Sunday. By the time the game was 110 seconds old, Tennessee was ahead 7-0 and Mercer was calling a timeout. It never got much better for the Bears, who couldn’t find any of the magic it used in its upset win Friday against Duke.

That mostly was because Tennessee’s interior defense Sunday was light years ahead of what Duke’s was, and the Volunteers’ rebounding was awe-inspiring.

The fact that Tennessee outrebounded Mercer 24-4 during the first half – yes, Mercer had four rebounds in an entire half – is one of the more extraordinary college basketball statistics you will ever see.

What Duke didn’t have – and Tennessee did – was two big-bodied post players who could fill up the paint.

“They’ve got the biggest men in America,” Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee’s 6-foot-8, 260-pound forward, had two dunks on Tennessee’s first three possessions and ended up with 17 points and 18 rebounds. Mercer was going to have to shoot about 80 percent on 3-pointers if it was going to win this one. It didn’t. Martin is safe. Auburn hired Pearl.

Tennessee is not the first team to advance from a “play-in” game to the Sweet 16 – LaSalle did it only last year – but the feat is nevertheless impressive. Before the tournament started, Tennessee was 2-7 this season against other members of the Field of 68.

The Volunteers began their week Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, trailing for the first 37 minutes of their first game against Iowa before rallying to win in overtime.

Then Tennessee rocked UMass by 19 points Friday and blasted Mercer by 20 Sunday. The Volunteers next will play No. 2 seed Michigan in Indianapolis on Friday in a regional semifinal.

On Friday, when the Duke players were sitting disconsolately inside their locker room following their loss, the amped-up Tennessee players came rolling by, ready to play their game against UMass.

“Take their heart early!” they kept saying to each other. “Take it early!”

The Volunteers did that to Massachusetts, and then they did it to Mercer. Good ol’ Raleigh top, indeed.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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