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NCAA Basketball SEC BasketballTennessee Volunteers

Bruce Pearl’s Shadow Looms Large Over Cuonzo Martin And Tennessee

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Three seasons ago, Tennessee men’s basketball team had to play with the uncertainty concerning the future of their head coach Bruce Pearl. We all know what happened in the Pearl situation — he was caught having a high school underclassman at his home, which is a secondary NCAA violation; he lied about it, and when he confessed to lying, it was too late. The NCAA wanted to make an example of Pearl, so they made him step down as Tennessee’s coach and slapped a three-year show-cause on him.

This was bad for Tennessee, as Pearl was the best coach they have ever had. But this was also the start of what seems like a curse. Ever since the Pearl incident, the Volunteers have been hit with one adversity after another. First, there was the responsibility of replacing Pearl, which was hard, considering Tennessee was still under investigation because of former football coach Lane Kiffin. The NCAA was sniffing all over the place in Knoxville, and most coaches wanted no part of that situation. Second, there was the loss of recruits who had committed to Pearl and were now going elsewhere, because, let’s face it, Tennessee isn’t a blue-blood basketball program, and without the rah-rah spirit of someone like Pearl, it is hard to convince top-talent that they will still be on the NBA radar in Knoxville.

After replacing Pearl with Cuonzo Martin, who is more of an in-your-face disciplinarian type coach than Pearl, the Vols had a rough first season with the transition. The bright spot in Martin’s first year was that Jarnell Stokes, a five-star high school senior who was not allowed to play his senior year of high school basketball due to a transfer rule enforced by the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. Stokes graduated high school early and chose Tennessee over Florida and Memphis.

Heading into year two without Pearl, the Vols were ready to take over as one of the better teams in the SEC. They were returning All-SEC forward Jerrone Maymon, pre-season All-SEC seond team point guard Trae Golden, and would have Stokes for a full season. Instead, Maymon never returned from offseason knee surgery, and there was a big hole in the paint for the Volunteers. Tennessee still got to 20 wins, somehow, but it wasn’t enough to make the NCAA Tournament. For the second year in a row, with Martin at the helm, the Volunteers were heading to the NIT after they had made the NCAA’s all six years with Pearl.

The curse looked to be lifted as the Volunteers headed into this season. They had Stokes, Maymon coming back, Jordan McRae was fresh off an All-SEC first team selection, and they would have senior point guard Trae Golden. All that went out the window in May when Golden was dismissed from the team, because he allegedly had a sexual relationship with the universities director of student judicial affairs. There were some cover-ups made in favor of Golden, so Tennessee had no choice to let him go, considering they were just now getting past all the NCAA investigations.

Luckily for the Volunteers, they were able to get some good news for once — former Memphis point guard, Antonio Barton, would be transferring to Tennessee. Barton isn’t the floor general Golden was, but he is a better shooter. With McRae being such a good ball-handler, the Vols can shift some more of the ball-handling duties to him. Martin also secured his second top-30 recruit, shooting guard Robert Hubbs.

Things are starting to look up for the Volunteers. They have three players who have made an All-SEC team, they have a senior point guard who has played in critical games before, and they have a highly recruited freshman. Things appear to be going in Martin’s favor for once, but if he falters yet again, guess whose three-year show-cause ends after this season? I’ll let you ponder on that one.

Follow Robbie on Twitter @rmarbury