RALEIGH, N.C. — If you signed that godforsaken petition, go ahead and pat yourself on the back. You just might have helped Tennessee make the Sweet 16.

And as you're doing so, kindly remove any thought of jumping onto the bandwagon as it strolls into Indianapolis, because these Volunteers are thriving off your criticism.

At least, that was one of many underlying feelings inside Tennessee's locker room moments after the 11-seeded Vols throttled Mercer on Sunday night.

"A lot of people doubted us," Jarnell Stokes said in the understatement of the century. "And that makes the ride much better."

Criticism is nothing new for this team. They've faced criticism ever since the moment Cuonzo Martin was hired — a move that thousands of fans proclaimed as bone-headed as soon as they failed to recognize him as a household name.

But the noise this season has been different. Very different.

These players have had their backs against the wall — that wall representing a massive, vocal portion of their own fan base — ever since they lost at Xavier to open the season. That tune went from noticeable to deafening after the Vols fell to UTEP in the Bahamas. Even when they nearly beat Wichita State — the first team to start 35-0 in history — on the road, it was spun as a massive disappointment.

Obviously, the Vols had their downs this season. Losses to UTEP, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M (twice) were enough to question whether this team would reach the pinnacle it set for itself before the season.

But a petition for another coach? 36,000 signatures — enough to fill Thompson-Boling Arena twice?

Good grief.

"It's nice to know that all the work we put in," Josh Richardson said, "and all the sweat and the tears and all the blood. I know it's cliché.

"But when you put so much into it, to be able to prove all the doubters wrong is nice."

Sure, it looked good on paper — Jeronne Maymon was back in the fold and Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes were coming off monster seasons.

But after losing point guard Trae Golden and replacing him with Memphis transfer Antonio Barton — who didn't officially join the Vols until August — the speed bumps were bound to exist.

That was only amplified by Maymon coming back from a 15-month absence and sporting knees that don't even allow the 6-foot-8 big man to dunk open looks at the rim.

The pieces to the puzzle were jagged and didn't fit well right off the bat. And the noise from UT fans, along with that struggle to form chemistry, practically derailed the Vols' season.

But Martin was able to do something that Pearl couldn't. When the Vols faced an unprecedented amount of outside chatter, they bounced back resiliently and won.

Martin's talent-loaded 2013-14 squad almost missed the NCAA tournament. Now, they've won eight of nine and Tennessee is the only group still dancing from the play-in games in Dayton, Ohio.

Pearl saw his fair share of adversity in his final season with the hammer of NCAA sanctions looming. That came with a similarly talented roster, which squeaked into the Big Dance as a 9-seed and were beaten silly in a 30-point loss to Michigan in the opening round.

That team had Tobias Harris and Scottie Hopson, if you want to talk disappointing finishes. But you won't hear those 36,000 mention that.

Instead, those 36,000 simply opted to make life as difficult as possible for Martin and the Vols to succeed this season while chasing a ridiculous dream.

No 18-23-year-old is able to drown out the type of trash-talking fans were hurling toward Martin and this team, especially when those people can pull a phone out of their pocket and personally send ire to players and coaches on social media.

And when they needed someone to turn to, they looked straight at the center of the criticism.

"My approach is always consistent," Martin said. "It's really making our guys understand and believe."

So if you're among those 36,000, keep hating. The Vols are feeding off it.

Steven Cook is a senior in journalism and electronic media. He can be reached at scook21@utk.edu.