RALEIGH, N.C. – The third year is important in the tenure of a college basketball coach.
Some coaches certainly experience success sooner than that, but in the case of a coach who inherits a program in need of some rebuilding, year three is when his program often begins to take shape.
The Vols were in a bad state when Cuonzo Martin took over in the spring of 2011. They lost most of their contributors from the 2010-11 season and were dealing with a cloud of potential NCAA violations hanging over the program, left by former coach Bruce Pearl.
After two years in charge, Martin came into the 2013-14 season with a chance to truly put his stamp on the program. Six of the eight players in UT’s regular rotation this season were signed by Martin. It would’ve been more if not for the loss of freshman guard Robert Hubbs to shoulder surgery. And the remaining players he inherited from Pearl, Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae, have been under Martin’s leadership enough that they have been primarily shaped by him as players.
With a talented roster returning and two near misses of the NCAA tournament, this was going to be a defining season for Martin. But the season didn’t unfold according to script. The Vols were inconsistent, dropped games they shouldn’t and eventually stood at 7-7 in league play and were squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, if not slightly on the wrong side of it.
That’s when the team started reflecting Martin. His stamp finally started going on the program.
“For me, there’s no giving up,” Martin said on Saturday afternoon in Raleigh, N.C., as his team prepares for a Round of 32 NCAA tournament game against Mercer. “My mom didn’t raise me like that. We don’t have the kind of time and energy to give up. You’ve got to continue to fight in everything you’re doing.”
And that’s what his team did.
The Vols rallied down the stretch, winning their final four games of the regular season and knocking off South Carolina in the SEC tournament before narrowly falling in the semifinals to No. 1 Florida. It was enough to get the Vols in the NCAA tournament, albeit as one of the final at-large bids, sending them to Dayton, Ohio, for a ‘First Four’ game against Iowa.
Down 12 early to the Hawkeyes, the Vols showed their Martin-inspired toughness again, rallying back to get the win in overtime. With that win and a blowout victory over UMass, the Vols are right where many thought they should be this season, even if the path was more circuitous than they envisioned.
Defense has been key. It’s been Martin’s emphasis at Tennessee and, though there were glimpses of the level he’s looking for in his first two seasons and earlier in 2013-14, the Vols didn’t take on the defensive identity he was looking to instill in the program until the final stretch of this year.
“I don’t think [the defense] was as consistent as it needed to be across the board [the last two years],” said Martin. “I thought we might have had two or three guys that could defend or two or three guys that defended well that night. Now I think we have five guys that are defending. More importantly, understanding if you defend at this level, these are the results behind it. And I think that’s the thing they embrace more than anything.”
“Guys want to defend,” said forward Jarnell Stokes. “I’ve been trying to make defense fun because I used to hate it, but now I enjoy it. I say that all the time. I came in and I could always score. I always had hook shots and I could run, but Coach Martin pushed me to become more than just a scorer. He pushed me to rebound, defend, talk, play with enthusiasm and it really paid off.”
While the team started to lock down opposing offenses on the court, it also learned to shut out any negativity that came from the outside. The inconsistent play of the team led to doubts about Martin from some outside the program.
Especially with Pearl unemployed and eligible to return next season (up until last week), criticism surrounded the team. Over 35,000 people signed a petition to bring Pearl back, however unlikely that might’ve been, while Martin was still coaching.
“He’s always the same,” said sophomore Derek Reese. “He’s always calm, he’s always telling us to stay focused on what’s important. Don’t worry about what’s outside. We’re a family and if they’re not here every day seeing what we’re doing, they shouldn’t be able to say anything. So he just tells us to focus on what’s going on between us and we know what we can do.”
Blocking out negativity is second nature for Martin. A cancer survivor who was raised by a single mother in East St. Louis, he’s gained a heightened focus on what’s important.
A trip to the Sweet 16 and beyond is clearly the goal for him at this point. But even if Tennessee gets bounced by the Bears on Sunday evening, he’s at peace with this season, even if it’s been somewhat of a bumpy ride.
He's not one to mention the off-the-court accomplishments either. A program surrounded by controversy just a few years ago is now squeaky clean. Its Academic Progress Report (APR) numbers have gone up. Discipline issues have been minimal and have always been handled quickly and fairly. Unpublicized hospital visits and other service projects are a norm in his program.
He's handled every situation with class, integrity and has treated those around the program with fairness. The results the rest of this tournament are important, but ultimately secondary behind his big-picture goal of leading and mentoring his players.
“I’m already happy,” he said. “I never look at it as ups and downs. You go through things in life. You build. For me, it’s always a teaching point for our guys, not always our freshmen. Things happen in life … You go through things. Do you give up? Do you fold or do you keep pushing? For me, these are the teaching points because if you put the work in, eventually the results will follow.”
And though UT is now at or near expectations for this year, questions still remain about the long-term future of the program. The Vols will lose a significant chunk of their roster next year, attendance has been down at home games and recruiting hasn’t been at a level that inspires immediate confidence in the future.
Don’t be surprised if Martin finds a way to overcome those challenges. But making a run in this tournament is still the focus right now. The Vols are capable of hanging with virtually anybody in the nation if they defend the way they have recently. Just like Martin, the Vols should be a tough out.
“I just ask that God give me the necessary equipment and tools to make these guys understand the importance of what they’re going through right now, so they don’t fold, so they don’t give up," he said. "With most young guys, they want it right away. You have to keep pushing. I’m happy where our guys are right now.”
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga