The Tennessee Volunteers should be in the bottom half of the SEC continuing to rebuild after the scandal that saw Bruce Pearl fired and their athletic director “resign,” not in the conversation for winning the SEC. Tennessee should not have finished second in the SEC last year, without making it to the NCAA tournament when #1 Kentucky , #3 Florida, #4 Vanderbilt, and #5 Alabama teams made it to the Big Dance.
Tennessee should not have signed Jarnell Stokes, one of the most talented recruits of 2013 a semester early. Tennessee should not have beaten an Elite 8 Florida team twice and beaten the eventual SEC champions Vanderbilt. Tennessee should not have already signed two five-star recruits (in the same day no less) for 2013 and have more already thinking about signing with the Vols. In less than a year, Cuonzo Martin has turned the Tennessee Volunteers Basketball Program into something that no one expected – a contender.
Martin, when hired from Missouri State, had an impressive resume. The Volunteers tend to hire coaches from lower divisions with great resumes rather than go after big name coaches. At first fans – still reeling from the loss of the beloved Bruce Pearl – were confused with this hire. Fans from larger conferences tend not to pay as much attention to smaller conferences and a few big name coaches were available at the time, so no one expected the hire.
Also, Martin was almost the polar opposite of Pearl. Where Pearl tended to be fiery and loud on the sideline; Martin seems reserved. The calm attitude is reflected in the Tennessee team since he took over. Some might say, “teams are not supposed to be calm;” tell that to the Tennessee team two years ago that, after finding that their coach was fired, was blown out by Michigan in the first game of the NCAA tournament.
Martin’s coaching style was perfect for the Volunteers because in the SEC momentum changes within a game every few minutes and being calm can mean the difference between a comeback victory and accepting defeat. Martin’s coaching style brought a much needed change to the mentality of the locker room. The Tennessee ideals changed from “we have to win” to “we can win.”
Martin recruits well because players want to play for him. He is not just a good coach, he is a good person – something that is becoming harder and harder to find in college sports. Players relate to him. Tennessee is known for its women’s basketball program and Pat Summit and its football program and the likes of Peyton Manning, Arian Foster, Jason Witten, Eric Berry, and Reggie White, not its men’s basketball program.
What player with the talent level of Jarnell Stokes would get an offer from his hometown Memphis Tigers and Tennessee and not choose Memphis five years ago? Not with Martin as coach. Players want to come to Tennessee because of Martin. The longer he coaches at the University of Tennessee the better this team is going to get and the better players that are going to come to Knoxville.
With Martin as coach, Tennessee looks to have the potential to become a consistent national title contender in the next few years.
This year, Tennessee, although picked to finish fourth in the SEC, will exceed expectations. The talent that Tennessee brings back is exceptional and the reason the Volunteers are not picked higher is because they have not been marquee program in the past. Let’s call it the USC football effect.
Almost every year USC can lose three games and still ends up ranked in the top 15 because they are such a prestigious program. It’s the same with basketball in the SEC. Florida, Kentucky, and Missouri are picked ahead of Tennessee, not because the teams are more talented, but because past teams were better. Tennessee, with the help of Martin, is ready to become one of those teams.
Tennessee’s players are young and talented, but have also been in the SEC for a few years and understand the difficulties of playing in a league as tough as this. Martin has definitely used the off-season to his advantage and this team will be stronger and faster than last year. Tennessee returns most of their starters next year and continues to add top-notch recruits.
If Tennessee wins the SEC, and I believe the Volunteers are more than capable, Martin should win Coach of the Year in the SEC. After turning around the season, he should have won the Coach of the Year last year as well. Tennessee is tired of being underrated; Expect the Tennessee Volunteers to cut down the net at the end of the SEC tournament. Martin is an elite coach and the Volunteers will be successful for as long as he remains at the University of Tennessee.