Climer: Tennessee Vols' Martin is the right coach at the right time

8:06 AM, Mar 11, 2013   |    comments
Cuonzo Martin
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Commentary by David Climer, The Tennessean

The date was Feb. 6, and Tennessee's Vols were on the bubble.

The NIT bubble.

UT had just lost back-to-back games and fallen to 11-10 overall and 3-6 in the SEC. The wheels were coming off. The Vols were headed nowhere.

But Cuonzo Martin didn't flinch. His players didn't, either.

The result: eight wins in the last nine games and a resume that should get the Vols into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large entry.

Asked about his thoughts on the NCAAs after the Vols' two-point victory over Missouri on Saturday, Martin said: "You've got to do the job, and I think the job is done."

It's been a remarkable turnaround. At a time when things could have fallen apart, the Vols stayed the course.

A number of factors have figured into the surge. Jordan McRae has played at an All-SEC level. Trae Golden expanded his game. Jarnell Stokes is a double-double waiting to happen. Beyond that, Martin has defined roles for the supporting cast. The Vols' offense may come and go, but their defense doesn't take any days off.

The monthlong surge further underscores that Martin is the right coach at the right time for UT. He stepped into an impossible situation in the aftermath of Bruce Pearl's firing in March 2011 and stabilized the program. Now he's putting his own stamp on it.

It's easy to forget just how bad things had gotten at the end of Pearl's tenure. After admitting he had lied to NCAA investigators, Pearl was suspended for the first eight conference games of the 2011 season by SEC Commissioner Mike Slive.

Amid mounting speculation, that team lost eight of its last 12 games, capped by a 75-45 blowout by Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. After initially pledging its support of Pearl, the UT administration came to its senses and fired him while bracing for NCAA sanctions.

The hiring of Martin stopped the bleeding. And it helped that the NCAA didn't pile on.

Martin's no-nonsense approach is an acquired taste for those who thought the program did not exist until Pearl arrived. Some even went so far as to suggest that Martin's role should be that of a three-year caretaker for the program while Pearl served his NCAA-mandated penance.

Their plan: When Pearl's show-cause penalty ran out, Martin could step away and everyone could pretend that nothing had ever happened. Let bygones be bygones, right?

It was a silly idea, but you'd be surprised how many Vols fans wanted it to happen. Some still do. Such is the impact Pearl had on the program.

Well, Martin's not going anywhere. For one thing, he's winning the games he's paid to win. Against rivals Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida, Martin is a combined 7-4 in his two seasons. That 30-point win over Kentucky alone is worth a contract extension and raise.

Some will argue that he's living off Pearl's recruits. And there's something to that. The core of this team is composed of Pearl's recruits. But credit Martin for getting the most out of what he has.

Assuming there are no early exits to the NBA - not a sure thing since McRae's stock is rising by the day - UT should be better next year. Jeronne Maymon's knee should be sound. Five-star shooting guard Robert Hubbs, who will be on display Wednesday when Dyer County plays Hillsboro in the state tournament, will add instant offense.

Yes, the future looks bright. But the present isn't so bad either.

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