The desperate Tennessee Volunteers didn't have to look outside of their own huddle to help shape the repair project for their forgotten season.

Consistency has been the obvious problem for UT all season, failing to win more than two straight games in SEC play until the final week of the season. From November to mid-February, one couldn't tell which team would show up on any given night.

After Feb. 22 — a second loss this season to Texas A&M and the third defeat in four games — many had written the Vols off. One more loss would have sent the season spiraling downward at an uncontrollable speed.

But at the helm of that sinking ship? Cuonzo Martin — the Vols' third-year head coach whose injection of a steady, work-driven culture has allowed Tennessee to remain one of the highlights in an otherwise dim SEC and stay in the hunt for a NCAA tournament bid this season.

In years one and two, that culture allowed the Vols to overcome early-season disappointments and put together late-season surges toward the Big Dance that fell just short.

In year three, though, things have gotten a bit complicated.

Players can't go on Twitter without coming into direct contact with unhappy fans. Practically all of the ire surrounding Martin as a coach is coming from within Knoxville, where a ridiculous coaching change petition draws more online traffic than anything surrounding the actual Vols' season.

No matter how it's sugarcoated and no matter how many times the players shoot down the distractions publicly, these are 18-to-22-year-olds. When things are said about them, or about people they come into everyday contact with, they listen.

That had UT's team keeping a keen eye on Martin — just to see if all this unprecedented pressure would change in any way the coach that has kept on his course since arriving on Rocky Top.

And what they saw was a coach that gave them no reason to believe that the noise would change their fate. They just had to buy in.

"Coach Martin, he stayed the same throughout the whole thing," Vols guard Antonio Barton said on Saturday. "He didn't let any of that jeopardize him or make him come to practice acting a certain way.

"He remained the same the whole time and he preached to us that we're going to pick it up. And that's what we're doing."

With their season bursting into flames all around them and experts writing off their NCAA tournament chances, the Vols simply took to their coach. They went to work every day, battled and got better.

Four games later, the Vols are one of the hottest teams in the country after demolishing their final three opponents by at least 27 points each.

While UT senior guard Jordan McRae was tight-lipped following the Texas A&M loss and simply wrote off the distractions as non-existent, he elaborated on it after Saturday's win over Missouri. As far as he's concerned, the team's performance this season has everything to do with the players.

"That's the thing — we don't pay attention to any of that stuff," McRae said of the outside criticism after Saturday's win. "At the end of the day, Coach Martin, he coaches. The players play.

"He's been giving us the same blueprint all year. And now as players, we're going out and doing it. Coach Martin, he's doing everything he can do for us. But at the end of the day, we have to go out there and guard and defend."

Two days after Texas A&M, job security and the crucial ending of the season was the subject for Martin's Feb. 24 presser. And for a man who overcame Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a form of cancer affecting the lymph nodes and immune system, the notion of being on the hot seat had Martin smiling from ear to ear.

Two weeks later, the Vols are strolling into the SEC tournament looking destined for a spot in what would be Martin's first NCAA tournament as a coach.

"This is what I envisioned defensively — when you buy in and sell yourself to the team, you can defend at a high level," Martin said Saturday.

His system is not an easy one to buy into. It takes extra attentiveness toward defensive principles and becoming an expert on fundamentals, all while consistently battling no matter how things are going on offense.

It's also not always a fun one to watch for the vast majority of UT fans who don't particularly love defensive-minded basketball and low shooting percentages.

But people around Knoxville, and around the country, are beginning to see over these last four games just what the finished product could look like if Martin is able to get his team to buy into it for 40 full minutes.

It remains to be seen if this season will end as another disappointment or not. But one thing is certain — Martin isn't changing his tune, and the players are dancing to it better than they ever have.

The only question now isn't whether Martin's style works, but whether the players can continue emulating it at a high level.

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