Tennessee's Beef Brothers threw their weight around as the Vols pounded 6-seed Massachusetts, 86-67, and advanced to the field of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Not bad for a SEC team that was relegated to a play-in-game before earning an 11-seed.
Tennessee's inside ton of fun tandem of Jarnell Stokes and Jerrone Maymon combined for 37 points and 25 rebounds as Coach Cuonzo Martin's team took control early and kept its feet on the gas.
UMass could not handle the size and strength of the Beef Brothers. Stokes and Maymon are listed as being 6-8 and a hefty 260 pounds. Both of them together could close down an all-you-can eat restaurant.
Stokes took game scoring honors with 26 points. He was 7 of 11 from the field and an impressive 12 of 13 from the free throw stripe. He also cleaned the glass 14 times against the Minutemen. Maymon added another double-double with 11 points, 11 boards.
The Vols play didn't do too much to validate the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee's judgment to make the Vols enter the tournament through the back door.
But by winning two games in convincing fashion, the Vols now take on Mercer, who after his team de-horned the Duke Blue Devils, had Hall of Fame Coach Mike Krzyzewski singing Mercer's praises.
The Vols best not take the Bears for granted or they may be joining Duke.
“They're not just a good team,'' Coach K gushed. “They're an outstanding team. You can tell those guys (have) played a lot of basketball together.
“They just played really well through-out, but especially down the stretch.''
The Mercer win certainly caught Martin's attention.
“Mercer won the ball game. For our guys, it's playing against a very talented Mercer team,'' he said. “For me as a coach, I've been around too long to understand or to take for granted a team's win. But I just want to make sure my guys understood that we have to play a ball game right now.''
They understand the theory of survive and advance, the essence of March Madness.
One reason the Vols don't need to look ahead, is their point guard play.
It has been lacking much of the season, but it's arguably the most important position for teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Memphis transfer Antonio Barton started and played 24 minutes. He was ineffective, missing all seven shots from the field and going 0 for 1 from 3-point range. His replacement, Darius Thompson, logged 19 minutes. He was one for three for two points and added another point from the free throw stripe. Thompson did have three assists and two steals and neither point guard had a turnover.
But moving forward, the Vols backcourt has to have more presence on the court. Mercer has a veteran team that guards opponents. If playing Duke didn't scare them, Tennessee certainly won't be able to get in their heads.
“Mercer can be a very scary team if you don't play defense well,'' Stokes said. “If you're a bad defensive team, Mercer will pick you apart.''
Mercer ended Tennessee's season last year by beating the Vols 75-67 in an NIT first round game before an announced Thompson-Boling Arena gathering of only 4,468 fans with the upper deck closed.
Josh Richardson remembers playing Mercer a year ago. It didn't surprise him when they ended Duke's season Friday.
“No. A team so disciplined as Mercer and experienced didn't surprise me very much,'' Richardson said. “They definitely executed their plays against us very well and we didn't match their intensity. We weren't very disciplined in the game and they came in our house and whooped us.''
“Mercer played this game like it was the end of their lives,'' Stokes said after last season's game ender.
If they lose to the Bears for the third straight season, there will be no excuses.
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