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Mike Strange: Vols’ Martin playing with house money

By Mike Strange Knoxville News-Sentinel (Tenn.) (MCT) • Updated Mar 24, 2014 at 10:23 PM

The Sweet 16 is set. That leaves a couple of days for coaching news to snatch a few college basketball headlines.

We have learned Sweet 16 surprise Dayton has locked up coach Archie Miller for the next five years. The extension was signed last month but not announced until Monday.

We also learned Monday that Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth’s coveted young savant, is reported to be thinking about Marquette and maybe Wake Forest. Interesting, since Smart has turned down several prior offers, including UCLA last year.

We learned Florida assistant John Pelphrey and Manhattan coach Steve Masiello, are in play at South Florida. Both have Rick Pitino ties, which carries weight.

What we are not learning is what Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin and his boss Dave Hart are thinking.

Whatever it is, it’s probably different than what one or both were thinking a month ago. Heck, even a week ago.

It’s been a brilliant week for Martin, the finest of his three-year Tennessee career. And that’s entirely aside from the fact that Bruce Pearl on Tuesday begins his second week as Auburn’s coach.

For the longest time it looked like Martin wouldn’t even get the Vols into the NCAA tournament. Well, he got them in and then he’s won three games in a five-day span.

And he and his team aren’t done yet. They’re off to the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis, joining a rock-star cast of Michigan, Kentucky and Louisville at the Midwest Regional.

Martin’s approval rating is at an all-time high. Even some — some, not all — of those “Bring Back Bruce” petition signers are apologizing.

So, what are Martin and Hart thinking? This could go two ways.

We could be hearing soon that Tennessee and Martin have agreed to an extension of his contract with a nice pay bump.

A year ago, after a first-round NIT loss, Hart declined to extend Martin’s deal. So it stands that he still has two years left.

It also stands that he is believed to be the 11th-highest paid coach out of 14 in the SEC.

The other way it could go is we hear Martin’s name linked to a vacancy at another school. If his approval rating has risen in Tennessee this week, it’s risen elsewhere as well.

Would Martin be tempted to leave? I wouldn’t pretend to speak for him, but, yes, he might.

Although he would never say it on the record, he and his family have been aware of the negativity that has permeated the school’s fan base much of the season. The Pearl scenario, I wouldn’t wish on any coach.

Martin can take criticism. He’s a grown man with thick skin. It got thick growing up in a tough East St. Louis neighborhood. Then it got thicker battling cancer.

When the team was spinning its wheels at times this season, his message was unwavering: don’t panic; stay the course.

“For me, there’s no give-up,” Martin said in Raleigh this weekend, between wins over UMass and Mercer. “My mom didn’t raise me like that. ... You’ve got to continue to fight.

“I like to think I present that to our guys on a day-to-day basis.”

Not exactly dazzling, but turns out it was a worthwhile and accurate message. The results are there. The Vols are one of 16 teams still playing.

What does that mean for Martin’s future? What does Hart think about the example Martin presents to his guys on a daily basis? We don’t know.

Hart said as the season tipped off that he expected Tennessee to play in the NCAA tournament. Since then, he hasn’t said a lot.

Don’t expect Tennessee to follow Dayton’s example and announce anything this week. Hart, possibly, would prefer to see how far this run goes before deciding what alterations are due in Martin’s contract.

For his part, Martin can certainly afford to wait. He got his team to the Sweet 16. He’s playing with house money from here on out.

We’ll see in due time whose money he’s playing with next season.

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