KNOXVILLE – It’s tough to argue with some of the results Cuonzo Martin has produced in his first two seasons at Tennessee.
After inheriting a rebuilding job following the sudden firing of former coach Bruce Pearl, Martin has pieced together two winning teams, averaging 19.5 wins per season. He’s finished as high as second in the SEC, knocked off the defending national champion in both seasons and been on the NCAA tournament bubble twice before ultimately settling for a pair of NIT bids.
But in the NCAA-tournament-or-bust culture created by Pearl, who took all six of his UT squads to the Big Dance, the outside pressure will begin to mount for Martin and the Vols to take that next step.
Internally, Martin is trying to minimize that long-term goal in favor of a day-by-day and game-by-game approach.
"As a coach, you want to make it, but as far as pressure, not at all,” Martin said. “I don't put it on myself, and I hope [the players] don't put it on themselves. You compete to be the best team in the league. You coach, practice and prepare to win ballgames. For us, once the season starts, it's one game at a time. So that game that is presented is the most important game, and then we go onto the next one. That's how I see it."
Others might see it differently. The third year is widely viewed as the statement year for a coach trying to put his stamp on a program. It’s enough time to fill out most of the roster with a coach’s own recruited players. It’s also enough time to make an impression on those players he inherited.
Martin isn’t necessarily a subscriber to the idea that it takes at least three years to build a program. He believes his style began rubbing off in the first year. But he acknowledged that it does take time to get the talent to a point where hard work can translate into tournament and championship aspirations.
"I like to think from Year 1 we tried to do that, just from a brand and a style of play." he said. "But I think when you are trying to win championships and cutting nets down, you have to have the personnel to do that. You have to be talented enough.
“You can work hard and compete and be in games and be tough, but you have to have the talent and personnel to try and win it in the end. I think we have the talent to do that. But again, staying healthy and playing together and understanding roles will be big for our guys."
And it appears in this case Martin does have the talent to reach Year 3 goals, showing that his program building is on a satisfactory pace. That starts with the returning talent of the likes of Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson, three consistent players from 2012-13, in addition to a deep and talented bench.
A finally-healthy Jeronne Maymon gives them added power in the post, while two newcomers, freshman Robert Hubbs and Memphis transfer point guard Antonio Barton, give the Vols some added offensive firepower from the perimeter.
Barton, a three-time NCAA tournament participant himself, provides stability at the point guard, perhaps adding the missing piece for the Vols to insure that Martin’s crucial third year is a success.
“I think [Barton] can talk because he has been there,” Martin said. “I just think these guys are hungry to be the best team we can possibly become at the end of the season. We are just really aggressive, and guys are working extremely hard. The veteran guys are really leading. The young guys want to be successful. At the end of the day, these guys have a passion [to make the NCAA tournament]."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga