Tennessee's program is now Martin's

The true imprint Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin has made on his team can be seen in their expressions.

The third-year coach, who has the Volunteers back in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 for the first time since 2010, has faced criticism from a number of fans about his sideline demeanor. He's too menacing. He doesn't smile often. He lacks charisma. During the Vols' struggles this season, Martin's biggest problem was that he wasn't former coach Bruce Pearl.

Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said the team embodied those stoic traits on the court and it has helped them become a better team. The Vols are no longer easily rattled.

"Coach Martin rubbed off on us, just having a stone face all game and not getting too excited or too down," Richardson said. "I think he does a great job of just staying the same."

Martin did let his guard down a bit after Tennessee's win over Mercer advanced the Vols to the Sweet 16. He stood in the middle of the locker room as players simulated the "Stone Cold Stunner" wrestling move, jumping into his chest.

Martin jumped along, even cracking a smile, as the entire team celebrated. Given the adversity of this season, it was well-earned.

"It's amazing to see these guys grow up right before my eyes through the course of a season," Martin said. "They're fun to be around. They took a lot of lumps, bumps along the way and continue to work hard, continue to stay together, found a way to win games and be successful."

Friday's game against No. 2 seed Michigan represents a homecoming of sorts for Martin, who played at Purdue from 1991-95 and spent almost 15 years as a resident of Indiana. The game will put him on the opposite side of Glenn Robinson, his former Boilermakers teammate and roommate, whose son,  Glenn Robinson III, is the Wolverines' second leading scorer.

Some tournament teams have to manufacture fuel for their drive through the tournament. The Vols didn't have to, it was presented to them.

A petition supporting Pearl's rehiring at Tennessee collected signatures well past Selection Sunday, when the Volunteers received an NCAA at-large bid. The signing continued right up until the rumors that Auburn would hire Pearl were proved true. That was the day before Tennessee played Iowa in the first round.

More than 36,000 signatures were collected online. Even for a group that might be considered overzealous, the numbers constituted a bona-fide movement.

"We know that he's a very genuine coach," junior forward Jarnell Stokes said of Martin. "It's tough to see a coach go through some of the things he went through as far as dealing with fans trying to sign petitions to get him out and dealing with the whole 'Bring back Bruce' situation."

Tennessee played in the NIT during Martin's first two seasons. The Vols, viewed as a potential Top 25 team this preseason, were one of the last four teams to get an at-large bid this season. They weren't a bad team; they just couldn't find a way to win close games, losing five games by five points or fewer.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings called anyone who wanted to get rid of Martin after three seasons "idiots." He told reporters last month that a coach needed more time to get his players acclimated to his system.

Tennessee's postseason has validated his claims.

"We had so many close games we just had to figure out how to win," Stokes said. "We finally figured it out, and this is the right time to know."

The first-round win over Iowa in overtime was a watershed moment of sorts because the Vols finally closed out a tight game. They carried that momentum into big wins over No. 6 seed Massachusetts and No. 14 Mercer to advance to Indianapolis.

"We put so much into it, to be able to prove our doubters wrong is nice," junior guard Richardson said.

That's not the reason that Martin is pleased so far. The only numbers that have mattered to him are the 15 guys in his locker room.

"It's more than winning basketball games on the floor, it's developing young men and getting it done in the classroom," Martin said. "That's the approach I take. I don't get consumed by anything else outside of that because it's time and energy wasted on my clock."

As much as they tried to stay away from social media, the players couldn't help hearing the chatter. But instead of becoming a distraction, playing for Martin became a focus. Senior guard Jordan McRae said the team viewed Martin as more than just a coach.

He often texts his players messages that have more to do with life than with basketball. He has been known to quote Scripture when the message is applicable.

"People just see what he does on the court. He does a lot for us as people and he's helping us become men," 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."

Those same qualities that kept him from being entertaining to the fans were the same qualities that endeared him to the players. They appreciated his consistency more than anything else.

"When things get hard he doesn't ever change; we know what we're going to get from him," forward Jeronne Maymon said. "That's what made us so confident in him. He stayed the same every day, so it was like, 'If he's not changing, why should we?'"