Tennessee Volunteers Basketball: Cuonzo Martin Has Proven Fans Wrong

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Tennessee Volunteers Basketball: Cuonzo Martin Has Proven Fans Wrong
Chuck Burton/Associated Press

This article is long overdue. The 2014 Tennessee Volunteers basketball team is playing as good as any team in the country.

But you wouldn't know it by the attitude of the players and coaches.

They, like their head coach, have been quiet and focused throughout the year. Cuonzo Martin deserves a ton of credit after being ridiculed the entire season.

There was hot-seat chatter as early as January 8th, when the Vols were 10-4 with wins over Virginia and Xavier. A large minority—or perhaps even a majority—of the fanbase took to social media with the clever hashtag, "#BBB" (Bring Back Bruce).

This, of course, assumed that Tennessee's season was done (it wasn't), that Pearl was the answer to all (he isn't) and that he wouldn't have any other options to consider this time around (he did). Most important was that first assumption. Just 14 games into a nice start to the season, the fans were ready to give Martin the axe.

These knee-jerk responses have become commonplace in the Volunteer fan base and are building a reputation we don't want to have. Stop it.

There was one fan, though, that backed Martin the entire way. No doubt there were others out there, but the pro-Bruce fans were as loud as their once outspoken leader.

But that was three years ago. It was a lot fun, but it's in the past. The coaches and players in orange get my support.

Since arriving Martin has won at least 20 games in each of his seasons in Knoxville. Okay fine, his first season was one short of 20, but Pearl hardly left the cupboard full with Tobias Harris, a group of B-squad upperclassmen and a few true freshmen with lots of growing to do.

The early-season reaction from the fanbase really begs the question: What is the minimum level of acceptable production at Tennessee in men's basketball?

Twenty wins per season, with a periodic tournament run, seems very reasonable for a football-first school to me. There's a difference between being realistic and being complacent, and I try to fall toward the former.

Recall the past several years in football and try to convince me that switching coaches that aren't immediately champions is a good strategy.

Bob Leverone/Associated Press/Associated Press
Pearl's last game at Tennessee was an embarrassing 75-45 loss against 8-seed Michigan.

Of course, there aren't many that would try to do that now. Either the fans have changed their minds midstream or the #BBB crowd has gone back underground, waiting for a deep-tourney loss to scream, "Told ya so!" But we'll all know better, won't we? We'll know that Martin is a great fit for Tennessee.

Martin's Vols have found their stride. In a year where many thought that Tennessee could be a top 25 team, the Big Orange have a good shot at the Sweet 16, a de facto top 25 (top 16, really) that means even more.

Mercer stands in their way, and after a win over Duke, is sure to be as confident as Tennessee. But this is the kind of position we all thought the 2014 Volunteers should be in at season's end. And look where they are.

Mind experiment: After Duke's typically impressive regular season that was totally void of any hot-seat talks for Coach K, ask yourself this: Would you rather have Duke's entire season or Tennessee's, whose season isn't yet finished?

It puts things into perspective on the unfounded vitriol against Cuonzo Martin.

What's always true of any good team is that it's about the players, not the coaches. Jarnell Stokes is playing as well as any big man I've personally seen at Tennessee. A friend with a few more years than me compared him to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer Wes Unseld. Baby boomers can confirm that for me.

Chuck Burton/Associated Press
Scientists are researching if Stokes is, in fact, Hercules.

Josh Richardson is playing terrific basketball. He brings a lot of energy on both ends of the court and is knocking down shots. No coach, good or bad, can compel a player to start hitting shots. Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae have been excellent leaders and players all season.

The point guard position must improve if the Vols hope to keep the run going. Antonio Barton has been wildly inconsistent this year and was 0-7 from the field in the win over UMass. Darius Thompson is young and steady but has a low ceiling this year.

The weakness of the point position has been the norm all season. What's forgotten is that the Vols were supposed to have three-year veteran Trae Golden returning this season, but he transferred to Georgia Tech in the offseason to be closer to his ill father.

If the "struggles" of the Vols are primarily because of point guard issues, as I believe they are, then the uproar of Martin's job status is akin to an uproar about the unexpected sickness of a father in Georgia. Do we really want to hang by that thin of a thread, Vols?

Just remember that if the Volunteers happen to lose a tournament game (yes, it could happen), it's not all Martin's fault. Show your sports knowledge and find a more creative reason for why the team didn't win.

Mine will be that Derek Dooley gave Martin advice.

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