Basketball has taken Big Orange Country by storm. The Lady Vols are a fixture in the Sweet 16, but the Vols returning after a few years' hiatus was a pleasant surprise. There are plenty of accolades to be spread around Rocky Top, but basically it starts with the guards and ends with Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon dominating the paint.
The leadership from the Vols' head coach is not lost in all this. After enduring some trying times this season, Coach Cuonzo Martin has emerged as the steadfast force behind what these student/athletes have been able to accomplish. How he held everything together this season is a story in itself and a big reason this team has made it to the Sweet 16, two wins away from making program history.
Tonight, the Vols (24-12) have a chance to advance into the Elite Eight when they play Big Ten regular season champs Michigan (27-8) inside a sold out Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. In-state rivals Kentucky and Louisville play the second game in the toughest of all the regions . The survivors will play Sunday in the Midwest Regional Finals and a spot in the Final Four.
Michigan is coached by John Beilein, a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year award. On the floor, they are led by Big Ten Player of the Year and leading scorer, sophomore Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. After coming up short in last year's title game with Louisville, Michigan just might be looking ahead to a possible rematch against the team that denied them a national title.
The Vols' defense will be put to the test controlling an offense that relies heavily on the three-point shot. Meanwhile, the Michigan defense will be trying to deny the Vols touches in the paint and limiting offensive rebounds. Its all about the defense in the post-season to survive and advance.
While the Vols are still playing their best basketball in the post season, the Lady Vols have sputtered a bit in the first two games. They are also headed to the round of 16, but not with the gusto you would expect from a number one seed. Still, this team has a lot of talent and you have to think they will play better this weekend in Louisville.
The Lady Vols (29-5) opponent Sunday is Maryland (26-6), who are led by ACC Player of the Year senior Alyssa Thomas. The Lady Terps are the four seed in this region but, at this point, all opponents are dangerous. Getting to the Final Four in Nashville is clearly the Lady Vols' team goal, but to do that, they will have to revert back to resembling the team that cut down the nets in the SEC Tournament. The tip is at 11 a.m. CDT on ESPN.
The Vols have been able to solve zone defenses and have controlled the tempo of games during their late season winning run. Experience, maturity and not wanting this special season to end are all plusses for the Vols, who suddenly are starting to look like a team of destiny. Could "Cinderella" be wearing orange?
Win or lose tonight, it has been rewarding to see this team come together and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Sure, there is plenty of nervous apprehension throughout Big Orange Country as the Vols prepare to play the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. Just remember, supporters of the maize and blue are equally nervous with an opponent that is playing their best ball of the season.
I have said this past month that all's well that ends well. In a post-season tournament that will end with heartbreak for all but one team, the Vols are now playing with "house money." That and proving critics wrong just might be enough of an edge to get the Big Orange where few collegiate teams have the privilege to go. Sometimes you just have to believe.
Go Vols and Lady Vols!!
(Frank Gale is a Chronicle correspondent and his column appears regularly.)