There have been more than a few speed bumps along the way in Cuonzo Martin’s first season as Tennessee basketball coach — one as recently as Saturday at Alabama. But with three quarters of the Southeastern Conference season in the books, the Vols are tied for fourth and have a chance to earn a bye in next month’s league tournament.
Given the state of the program he inherited —heavy personnel losses and the specter of NCAA sanctions hanging overhead like storm clouds ready to unload — if before the season began someone had offered Martin a deal for fourth place in late February, he would have jumped all over it.
"Oh, with a doubt because there were so many unknowns,” Martin said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “Now don't get me wrong, if we had returned this season with Scotty (Hopson) and Tobias (Harris) — because they had the potential to come back to school — I'd say let's fight to be the best team in this league. Because you knew what you brought back. You had a core group of guys who you could build around.
"But the in the case where you don't have any proven stars, and guys are trying to find their way, it's hard to go into the season and say, ‘Let's finish first in this league.' You don't know what you have. It's not like I've been here five years as a coach and I say, ‘Well, we've got good freshmen coming in.' I don't know what we have.
“Because we've put ourselves in a position, I would take it any day of the week. But I still feel there were games we lost that we could have won because of the progress our guys made. I keep going back to Austin Peay (which beat the Vols in Knoxville after shooting 72 percent in the second half); we weren't a very good team, and the best team won that night on our floor. But we're a better team now."
Whether the Vols (14-13, 6-6) are good enough to close out the regular season with an SEC Tournament bye remains to be seen. With four games to play — two of them on the road at LSU and South Carolina — there’s plenty of work to be done. A win over Ole Miss on Wednesday night in Knoxville would help break up the logjam that has become the middle of the SEC standings. Before Tuesday night’s games, four teams were tied for fourth at 6-6, and two more, including Ole Miss, were right behind at 5-7.
That Tennessee has worked its way into that mix is a testament to the conviction of Martin, whose program bedrocks are playing hard, running the motion offense and defending.
“Coach Martin’s not a hard coach to please at all — if you play hard and defend, you can play for him,” said sophomore guard Jordan McRae, who could be the poster boy for Martin’s rebuilding efforts. McRae began the season in the starting lineup, lost his spot when Martin wasn’t happy with his defensive intensity and barely played for a month. Since working his way back into the rotation, McRae has become a consistent scorer again, but with his long, wiry frame and quickness, he’s also been a factor on defense, too.
McRae admits it took him a while to see the light.
“I definitely did,” McRae said. “In high school, not really playing any defense, and last year, not playing (as a freshman). It’s an adjustment you have to make. … When you’re guarding, Coach Martin says it’s all about pride. You don’t have to be the fastest or the strongest. You just have to have the pride to keep somebody in front of you. Anybody can do it.”
“He's done a good job,” Martin said. “It takes time. He's a guy who's been built to score all his life. His ability to defend is blocking shots and gambling and trying to get steals. We need him to be strong and fight through ball screens, to be tough, to rebound. And he's done a good job rebounding.
“It's just him really taking pride in doing those things, because it's not like he didn't have the ability to do it. It's just a matter of him doing it and understanding that in order for him to play, this is what he has to do."