All of a sudden, after a basketball season rife with speculation and discontent, the major players seem absolutely ecstatic that the Cuonzo Martin era will continue at Tennessee.
Says Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart: “We are proud that Cuonzo Martin will continue to lead our basketball program.”
Says Martin: “Tennessee is where I want to be. That has never changed.”
Hmmm. Makes you wonder why Hart was so silent when the Vols were 16-11, fans were petitioning for the return of beloved former coach Bruce Pearl, and Martin was still wondering why he didn’t get a contract extension after last season.
As for Martin’s supposed interest in the Marquette job, maybe that was little more than a “bump” in recruiting parlance. He probably was just too polite to decline a call from a program so far removed from reality that it actually thought Martin would coach anywhere other than Tennessee.
Just shows what a few wins will do for you. An underachieving team that — as you later discovered — was only a defeat away from again spending its postseason in the NIT, wound up one shot away from the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
As for Tennessee’s everybody-is-happy ending to a down-and-up season, the skepticism raised by the principals’ closing statements doesn’t overshadow what Martin and his third Tennessee team accomplished.
NCAA tournament runs often provoke knee-jerk reactions. But it’s not just a belated winning stretch that changed my opinion of Martin.
He held his team together on the shakiest of ground and had the Vols playing their best basketball when it mattered most. There was never a visible crack in his armor, never even a hint of frustration during a news conference.
Martin’s toughness eventually seeped into his team’s consciousness. The same team that went 0-2 against Texas A&M went 3-1 in the NCAA tournament. And it summoned a closing charge that had favored Michigan so rattled, it could barely complete a three-foot pass while blowing most of a double-digit lead in the final minutes of a 73-71 Sweet 16 victory.
Before the most recent edition of March Madness, there was no wow factor with Martin, no compelling reason to believe he could lift the program to a Pearl-like level. However, there’s a lot to be said for a coach who can deliver results under the utmost pressure.
That’s not to suggest it’s all good the rest of the way. UT’s next team won’t likely be as successful, especially if Jarnell Stokes makes the mistake of going pro early. So more trying times could be ahead.
If so, who’s to say Martin won’t be tough enough to handle them? And if he does, his professed love for Tennessee might not prevent him from taking another job.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. UT basketball fans have a newfound March presence to celebrate and more cause for optimism.
Former Auburn coach Sonny Smith said when Pearl was hired at Auburn how important it was for a fan base to identify with its coach, not just its program. Maybe more fans can better relate to Martin after the tournament prosperity.
He could help himself by letting his guard down in a public forum and allowing fans a glimpse of the coach that beat reporters get in off-the-record conversations. Those reporters find him approachable, witty and as honest as a coach can be.
Fans would be happier to know that coach is sticking around.