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David Climer/The Tennessean

RALEIGH, N.C. – Maybe it's time for another one of those online petitions.

You know, one that supports Cuonzo Martin as Tennessee's basketball coach.

Any takers?

No matter what you think about Martin's performance in his three seasons as Tennessee's coach, there is no disputing that he has the Vols peaking at the right time. A team that appeared headed nowhere four weeks ago now is bound for the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 after Sunday's 83-63 win over Mercer.

How does it feel to be in the Sweet 16?

"Sweet," Tennessee junior Josh Richardson said. "It's really sweet."

Even the normally stoic Martin dropped his guard when reflecting on the accomplishments of the past week.

"It's amazing to see these guys grow up right before my eyes, through the course of a season," he said. "They took a lot of lumps through the course of the season. They took a lot of lumps, bumps along the way. …

"In the midst of it, they've grown a true love for each other in the process. I'm happy as a coach to be a part of these guys' lives."

Food for thought: Martin now owns three of the 19 NCAA Tournament victories in UT men's basketball history. With his 3-0 run this March, Martin has equaled Jerry Green's victory total in four NCAA appearances. Only Bruce Pearl (eight) and Don DeVoe (five) have more. And he's done all this amid considerable clutter.

More: Vols beat Mercer, move to Sweet 16

Although he refuses to address it publicly, Martin is aware of the criticism. He coached part of the season knowing there was an online petition circulating that supported the rehiring of his predecessor, Pearl.

All the while, Martin just kept coaching his team. Now he's being rewarded for his unrelenting tunnel vision.

"Luckily for our guys, they stayed the course and didn't get caught up in the negativity and continued to get better not only as basketball players but as men."

Previously: Vols need two NCAA wins to keep Martin's job

At the height of the criticism after UT had slipped to 16-11 after a loss to Texas A&M, the Vols rallied around their coach. Jordan McRae, a leftover from the Pearl era, said the Vols "definitely were playing for Coach Martin."

"He's more than a coach to us," McRae said. "When it got to the point where people were saying what they were saying, you've got to fight for somebody like that. … No matter what happens in the game or whatever else is going on, he stays the same. "

Jarnell Stokes, who had his third straight NCAA Tournament double-double against Mercer, said Martin fits under the heading "genuine coaches" and believes he doesn't get the credit he deserves.

"I'm very aware of the criticism Coach Martin has had," Stokes said. "You know, genuine coaches don't get a lot of credit. I've heard fans get mad at him for not getting technical fouls. That's crazy. …

"He teaches us about things off the court that don't even apply to basketball. I'm mature enough to understand that he has our best interests at heart."

OK, it's fair to ask why it took so long for the Vols to kick it into gear like this. Stokes acknowledged that he felt the Vols were a premier team before the season but got sidetracked for the better part of four months.

"It felt like coming into this year that we were a top-16 team, but we had so many ups and downs," he said.

Now, though, the Vols are on a roll. They head to Indianapolis for a game against No. 2 seed Michigan with considerable confidence.

Better late than never, I guess. The Vols are not exactly playing like a double-digit seed at this point in the bracket.

Some will argue that UT got the benefit of the bracket by facing No. 14 seed Mercer instead of third-seeded Duke. Save it.

Duke had the pedigree and name recognition, but Mercer had the execution and toughness. If you watched their game on Friday, Mercer played much better than the Blue Devils. The outcome was no fluke.

But on Sunday at PNC Arena, the Vols were dominant. UT led by 15 at the half and never looked back.

And don't forget that the Vols had an extra obstacle on the road to the Sweet 16. They needed overtime to beat Iowa on Wednesday in the First Four at Dayton, Ohio.

"It makes it a lot sweeter to come from a play-in game and having to prove ourselves," said Richardson, who scored a game-high 26 points. "I think we're capable of a lot. Playing like we are, I think it's tough for anybody to beat us."

Time to start that petition.

David Climer's column appears on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Reach him at 615-259-8020 and on Twitter @DavidClimer.

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