Sweet 16 has all Vols aboard Cuonzo Martin bandwagon

(WBIR - Knoxville) After a big weekend of men's college basketball, big orange country is bursting with excitement as the University of Tennessee prepares for a trip to Indianapolis and the "Sweet 16" in the NCAA Tournament.

The Vols' performance in the tournament was by far the biggest trending topic on Twitter in Knoxville on Monday. The excitement online now includes a petition calling for a pay raise and extension of head coach Cuonzo Martin's contract.

The current UT universe seems light years removed from the environment in Knoxville just five weeks ago. As the Volunteers struggled during the regular season, more than 36,000 UT fans signed an online petition asking the university to bring back fired head coach Bruce Pearl.

"Fans want Bruce Pearl back" and "they don't want Cuonzo" were the common themes on local sports talk radio programs.

Eight wins later, Cuonzo Martin's squad is just one win away from going as far as in the NCAA Tournament as any team in UT men's basketball history. The Volunteers have never advanced to the Final Four.

Monday the Rocky Top bandwagon literally showed rock solid support for Cuonzo Martin. The iconic campus rock featured spray-painted messages that proudly proclaimed "Sweet 16."

"I'm a lifelong fan and I can say Tennessee fans are pretty crazy in all honesty," said UT student Michael Shelton. "I saw some stuff on Twitter with people saying 'eating crow never tasted so good,' which I thought was pretty hilarious."

"I'd say there are a lot of fans eating crow right now," said Chris Low, WBIR contributor and SEC blogger for ESPN. "This is a team that a lot of people wrote off when they underachieved during part of the regular season. Cuonzo Martin deserves credit for not panicking. His team didn't panic when they were not playing their best basketball or while people were signing petitions and calling for Bruce Pearl."

Low said the beauty of Cuonzo Martin is the consistency he provided the team through thick and thin.

"I think the bring back Pearl movement, really, and some of the criticism has motivated this team," said Low. "We're seeing more and more how Cuonzo has always had his team's back and they had his back."

The creator of the online petition to bring back Bruce Pearl is now singing Cuonzo Martin's praises. In email messages with 10 News, the petition's creator asked us not to publicize his name. The petition starter said he doubted Martin's ability to coach prior to the recent stretch of games, but has been swayed by the Vols' tournament performance.

"I, like most, am eating my words," wrote the petition starter in an email to 10 News. "I think he has done a tremendous job at bringing this team together at the perfect time. I am all for him getting an extension and am looking forward to his ability to develop talent as he has recently shown with this team."

Low said he expects positive petitioning to continue with the Volunteers' success.

"If Tennessee beats Michigan and gets to the elite eight, well that's as far as any team has ever advanced in Tennessee basketball history. I tell you if this team wins another game or two gets to the final four, maybe you'll see more petitions out there to 'please stay' Cuonzo," said Low. "It is all about what you do in March and right now Cuonzo Martin has this team playing its best basketball."


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