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Vols rout Kentucky: Cuonzo Martin deserves the credit

Cuonzo Martin

Cuonzo Martin has his team believing, not to mention playing its best basketball of the year.

The Tennessee Volunteers (14-10, 6-6 SEC) routed the Kentucky Wildcats (17-8, 8-4 SEC) today by a final score of 88-58. Only it wasn’t as much of a victory as it was a statement. One made loudly and clearly by Cuonzo Martin in the finest hour of his oft criticized time at the University of Tennessee.

Here’s hoping that people heard it. Because Cuonzo Martin and the Tennessee Vols just handed Kentucky its biggest loss against the University of Tennessee. EVER.

I wish I’d thought to “favorite” it at the time. A tweet of Wes Rucker’s, that is. Because if I had it handy, I’d embed it right here into this post. Instead, I’ll have to pull it from memory. It went something like this: Wouldn’t it be great if, just once, a Volunteer team could have an off night without everyone calling for the coach’s head?

Time to give Cuonzo Matin some credit

And Rucker was right on the money. Because Cuonzo Martin’s been getting unjustly abused during much of his time at UT. Now that I’m keeping a sports site, I’m more aware of it than ever before. I see it on the aVy’ Facebook page. I see it on the tweets. I see it on the message boards. And I hear it on the radio.

Do you know how easy that is? To throw all the blame of a lackluster half, a lackluster game, or a lackluster series of games on a coach? Yes. Sometimes it’s well deserved. (See Dooley, Derek.) But with Cuonzo Martin, it is not.

I’m still not 100% sure people realize just how good of a job Cuonzo Martin did last year in his first season as Vols head coach. And I’m flat-out positive people don’t realize how good of a job he’s doing this year.

Most coaches would have lost their teams in either of these campaigns, given the rocky starts they had to overcome. Last season’s was in the wake of the NCAA scandal that cost Bruce Pearl his job and Tennessee its two best returning players, as suddenly difficult decisions for Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris proved to be anything but. And this season’s came in the wake of UT losing their most impactful player both on and off the court.

In both cases, the Tennessee Vols had to find their identity. In both cases, the search made for some tough sledding. In both cases, the naysayers were loud. (By the way, you clowns wanting Bruce Pearl back are a JOKE.)

And in both cases, Cuonzo Martin did exactly what it is that Cuonzo Martin does. He rolled up his sleeves and went to work, staying the course that he — and seemingly he alone — had complete confidence in. It wasn’t sexy. And it wasn’t pretty. Hell, often it was downright ugly. But Cuonzo Martin knows what few others do — if you’re doing things the right way, the results will eventually come.

Even if your program is trying to recover from scandal. Even if your team is trying to absorb the loss of its best player.

There will be many pieces written about this remarkable game, but this isn’t one of them. Instead, this piece is about UT’s remarkable head coach and some of the minor miracles he’s managed to work this year.

Trae Golden

I’m not sure which is more difficult — winning basketball games despite poor play from your point guard, or the decision to bench that point guard. Because benching your most important player (which Golden is) can often lead to disastrous results.

To that end, Martin’s handling of Trae Golden has been masterful. Even when Cuonzo Martin sat him, he never lost him, a tribute to both Trae and the staff that coaches him. And even after Trae was forced to miss time with a tweaked hammy, he’s still found a way to come back to play his very best basketball of the year.

Much of the credit belongs to Martin who never lost faith in the guy he was forced to bench. The player he’s now encouraging to be aggressive in finding his shot. Trae’s doing just that and everything else is falling into place.

Imagine that.

Jarnell Stokes

One of Cuonzo Martin’s finest moments this year was when he contacted SEC officials to make the following appeal on behalf of Jarnell: Let him be big. And since then, the refs have, indeed, been a bit easier on Tennessee’s most physically imposing player.

Know why the approach worked? Because Cuonzo Martin don’t cry no wolf, y’all. Dude’s like EF Hutton. When he speaks, people listen. Whether it’s his players or the zebras who blow the whistles during the games they play.

But getting the refs to change their game was only half the battle. The other half was getting Jarnell to change his. Which he’s done. Being physical is one thing. But adding reason to the rhyme of that physicality is yet another. And as the season has progressed, Jarnell’s done a better and better job of channeling his imposing presence in the proper direction. He’s not only using it with his back to the basket in the paint. He’s also using it to clean the glass.

And when Jarnell rebounds well, he scores well, too. Period. (See: six straight double-doubles, just one point and one board shy today from making that seven.)

Armani Moore

When Tennessee officially lost Jeronne Maymon for the year, they also officially lost their identity. And finding a new one isn’t something that happens overnight. Credit Martin and his staff for grinding day-in, day-out in an effort to track it down. Sure looks like they’ve finally found it.

And it’s nice to see that Armani Moore is part of that identity. His arrival, like so many other things with this team, wasn’t an event. It was a process. And now that he’s found his way into the starting line up, his athleticism, versatility and top-notch effort have all helped to make the Vols a better team.

Skylar McBee

Find me one person whose confidence in Skylar McBee has never faltered this year (myself included) and I’ll show you a liar. Well, unless that person’s Cuonzo Martin. Yes. Martin yanked him from the starting lineup. Yes. Martin tweaked his minutes, down to just ten per contest during one stretch this year.

But of late, Skylar’s been playing a lot better. Especially the past four games. (Er, aside from Vanderbilt.) And of late, his minutes have reflected that. He drilled all three of his shots from downtown in his 27 minutes today, each sending a jolt of energy throughout the Tommy Bowl that did nothing but further amplify the already raucous crowd.

Again, the credit goes to Cuonzo Martin for sticking with Skylar and continuing to urge him to pull the trigger. Especially when many (again, myself included) questioned whether or not McBee even deserved to be on the SEC hardwood, much less logging significant minutes.

The emergence of the big three

And with all that, Tennessee’s identity has officially codified, and it begins with the starting five that now seems set in stone. Armani is versatile and athletic and will continue to get better. Josh is the ball hawk who’ll be some poor dude’s shadow on the perimeter. And then, the big three. Jordan will flat-out fill it up. Jarnell will pound. And Trae will be the straw that stirs the drink.

You add a bench filled with characters like McBee and his three, Kenny Hall and his blue-collar game, as well as the occasional contributions from folks like Yemi Makanjuola, Quinton Chievous and Derek Reese?

That makes this team one to be reckoned with. Which should make these last six games awfully entertaining.

And I credit all of this to Cuonzo Martin. I hope more people do, too.

Many of you have been calling for another video — Have you seen the one I put up this past week?
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photo courtesy of @Vol_Photos, maybe my very favorite Twitter account to follow.

facebook comments:

  • WillyMcGilly

    You make some excellent points. But even as a long-time supporter of CCM, there were things to criticize. I had no idea what was going through his head matching up Skylar McBee with Marshall Hendersen. I still have no idea. But he sure did an excellent job today. And last season.

    • VOLuntaryCOLTSfan

      Josh Richardson was matchup up on Marshall Henderson until they called bogus fouls on him. Then when Richardson had four fouls, they matched up McCrae on him, and when he took breathers, McBee guarded. McBee was his third option, and correctly so. Trae couldn’t guard him, nor anyone else on the team.

      • WillyMcGilly

        As I recall, McBee guarded him in the first game. I missed the second game and can’t comment. My memory could be off, but I do remember being baffled about something.

    • http://johncaveosborne.com John Cave Osborne

      i do agree that there have been a few things this year that have made me scratch my head. and a lot of them center around Skylar! and i remember one game where Martin pulled Jarnell after he’d gotten off to a MONSTER start and whoever we were playing — pretty sure it was Vandy in Ktown — came back and made it a game and, truthfully, probably shoulda won. and i remember being like, whaaa? still, i think he’s done a great job bringing along armani and, well, everything else i said. the Trae thing being particularly impressive. thanks for your comment and keep up all the great work you and your cohorts do.

      • WillyMcGilly

        Yeah, Armani has been great once we realized we couldn’t force him into the PG role. He’s improved by leaps and bounds.