Judging by their performance in the NCAA tournament so far, the Tennessee Volunteers know their own strength. Recognizing a huge advantage in the paint, the Volunteers absolutely dominated the outmatched Mercer Bears by the score of 83-63 to move on to the Sweet Sixteen.
Unlike the Duke Blue Devils, the Volunteers had no intention of living and dying by the three-point shot against Mercer. Cuonzo Martin knew that Jarnell Stokes created matchup nightmares down low. Stokes followed up his 26-point performance against the UMass Minutemen with 17 points and 18 rebounds against Mercer.
The Bears simply did not have the bodies or physicality to compete with Tennessee’s game plan. The offensive rhythm seen against Duke was eliminated by the Volunteers’ aggression on the boards, both offensively and defensively. The rebounding margin was 41-19 in favor of the Volunteers, 18 of which were offensive rebounds.
From this lane domination came numerous fast break points and open looks for Tennessee’s guards. Josh Richardson and Antonio Barton manned the perimeter firing range for the Volunteers, finishing with 26 and 18 points, respectively. Mercer had no answer for this onslaught and saw their Cinderella hopes dashed quickly.
The Bears were in a double-digit deficit for the majority of the game, only shot nine free throws and could not establish continuity on either end of the floor. Jakob Gollon and Daniel Coursey, who combined for 37 points against Duke, were neutralized by the swarming Volunteer defense and only managed 17 points total.
Tennessee has looked to their strong inside game in all three of their NCAA tournament games with obvious success. Martin has decided that the Volunteers must win the battle in the paint and so far, his squad has answered the call. Three double-digit victories can only serve to boost the confidence of the team as they head into a matchup with the Michigan Wolverines.
Feeding off the presence of Stokes, winning the rebounding battle and maintaining the aggression shown against Mercer will certainly give Tennessee a chance to upset the No. 2 seeded Wolverines. If the Volunteers can cool off the hot-shooting Michigan guards, this former at-large team could be a serious contender to be one of the Final Four in April.