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The Cuonzo Quandary

By Alex Norman

This was supposed to be the season that the Tennessee Volunteers returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011. There wasn’t going to be any “bubble” talk this time around.

The Vols returned one of the SEC’s top scorers in senior guard Jordan McRae. They had forward Jarnell Stokes back for his junior season and redshirt senior forward Jeronne Maymon was finally healthy.

The 2013-2014 Southeastern Conference was not exactly going to be the 1984-1985 Big East either. Sure, Kentucky brought in another group of future NBA lottery picks, and Florida was filled with experience… but the rest of the conference was a dumpster fire.

Barring an SEC tournament victory (which hasn’t happened since 1979), the Vols are going to be a nervous group on Selection Sunday once again.

So why hasn’t it worked out?

The buck should, and will stop with third-year head coach Cuonzo Martin, who has not gotten the most out of his team.

Martin is by all accounts one of the nicest guys you’ll meet. His life story, which includes a childhood in one of the nation’s roughest neighborhoods, and a victory over non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as an adult, is a testimony to the type of character the man has.

But he hasn’t gotten the job done at Tennessee.

It hasn’t been horrible. The Vols won 19 games in Martin’s first year and 20 games in his second season at Tennessee.

However, the expectation now in place for this program isn’t just to make the NCAA tournament every few years…

No one is expecting UT to turn into Duke or Kansas… but considering the fan support and the facilities that are in place now in Knoxville, there’s no reason why Tennessee should not, at the minimum, be a team that is consistently very busy every March.

The biggest issue for Martin may very well be the fact that his style of play, and his personality, have not connected with Tennessee fans. Martin stresses half court defense and half court offense. His teams rarely play zone and hardly ever push the pace when in possession of the basketball.

That’s not an entertaining evening for fans willing to fight the traffic for a 9 p.m. tipoff against Georgia.

And for all of Martin’s positive qualities, he isn’t ever going to be the guy that will always accept speaking engagements for the monthly meeting of the Knoxville Civitan Club or the Vonore HAM radio Club or whoever asks for a few minutes of his time.

Former Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley was the same way.  Dooley is a more extreme example, as having any dealings with fans his seemingly beneath him, despite his stature in the state and undeserved large salary.

And that’s one of the major issues here. Martin hasn’t built that equity with Tennessee fans the way his predecessor did.

Bruce Pearl was ready, willing and able to preach the gospel of Tennessee basketball, doing hundreds of public appearances for groups large and small. He did this in the months leading up to the Vols first game in the fall of 2005, and he did this in the months leading up to his inevitable dismissal in the late winter of 2011.

And he did it constantly during his entire six year tenure. Sure, Pearl won big (by Tennessee standards), but fans loved him and he loved them back.

Jerry Green won games too, but at the end Vols fans were ready to throw him and his attitude into the Tennessee River.

It’s why the clamoring for Pearl’s return, despite his NCAA penalties, is gaining so much steam. An online petition for Pearl’s re-hiring has over 10,000 signatures.  Even though Pearl would sell games out and be a huge hit for fans, his return is unlikely.

If Martin’s Vols find a way into the NCAA tournament, this is a moot point. His job will be safe for at least one more season. And he could survive another year even if they are indeed one of the last teams out.

It shouldn’t have been this way.

This team has too much talent to be stuck in the NIT.

But that could very well happen… once again.

And if it does… Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart will have a big decision to make.

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