1 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

INDIANAPOLIS (The Tennessean)-- Tennessee is in the Sweet 16, which means the chips are stacked higher.

It also means the chips are stacked taller on the Vols' shoulders.

Nothing has happened over the last few days to change the players' perception that they have not been given their due. Some question their No. 11 seed. Being relegated to a play-in game carries a stigma. And the criticism they heard from their own fan base during the regular season still resonates.

"We're playing with a chip on our shoulder because a lot of people were doubting us," said Vols junior Josh Richardson. "Throughout the season, we've had some ups and downs and people have counted us out."

Asked if the chip will be dislodged from his shoulder at any point during the postseasaon, Richardson shook his head and said: "No. You take it and run with it and use it as a positive."

Fair enough. At this point in the NCAA Tournament bracket, you take motivation anywhere you can find it. They Vols enter the Midwest Regional semifinal against Michigan acting like a team scorned.

Jarnell Stokes points to the Vols' double-digit seed and their First Four matchup with Iowa as indications the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee misread UT's resume.

"I was somewhat disappointed," Stokes said. "I felt like we were a better seed than what they gave us. … I think it was great motivation. I think we've been able to do so much in this last stretch."

Indeed, the Vols have saved their best for last. UT has won eight of its last nine games, including a 19-point victory over UMass and a 20-point win over Mercer last weekend in Raleigh, N.C., to secure a Sweet 16 berth for the fourth time in eight years. But it goes beyond margins of victory. The Vols are on a roll that few if any forecast when this team was lumbering along at 16-11 a month ago.

Those earlier struggles forged a tougher team. The Vols hit the stretch run realizing they were playing for their postseason lives. After back-to-back NIT berths, the players bonded and found common ground.

"About a month ago, everybody kind of doubted us," said sophomore Armani Moore, who likely will be the first Vol off the bench against Michigan. "People were saying we couldn't do this and couldn't do that. I feel like we did a great job as a team of keeping our minds on our business and playing tougher.

"We came together as a team. We stayed locked in and it paid off."

Said senior big man Jeronne Maymon: "It's just having each others' backs, being there for one another no matter what the cost was."

Credit UT coach Cuonzo Martin for never losing faith even when the Vols were going through stretches where they couldn't close out games. He stayed the course and his players followed his lead.

"A lot of teams go through things through the course of a season," he said. "I think that's the great thing about a long season. Anything can happen. …

"This particular group has a love for each other and they want to be successful as a team. I think that's why you see the results you see. But you also have to have talent to do that and you also have to have the guys embrace what you're trying to do as a coach and not give up."

From a distance, Michigan coach John Beilein was aware of the criticism of Martin. He said he could relate.

"It's happened to me several times in my career and that's just where you hang on as tight as a coach and you've just got to eliminate those distractions," he said.

By winning three games in a five-day period, the Vols arrive at Lucas Oil Stadium with a chance to go where only one UT men's team has gone before – the Elite Eight.

Not bad for a team that was one of the final at-large entries to the 68-team bracket.

"We don't think of ourselves as a Cinderella or anything," said senior guard Jordan McRae. "We feel like we're supposed to be here. We had a rough season but we've turned it around."

Let the chips fall where they may.

1 LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: http://on.wbir.com/1jTM5UC