What a difference a month has made for Tennessee Volunteers basketball coach Cuonzo Martin.
On February 23, former Vols coach Bruce Pearl was a featured speaker at SportsFest, an event hosted by Nashville radio station 104.5 The Zone. (Full disclosure: this writer is also an employee of said station.) Zone personality/football blogger/basketball neophyte Clay Travis all but kissed Pearl's feet in begging him to return to Knoxville as Martin's replacement, as reported by the Nashville Tennessean.
Two days later, on his own Outkick the Coverage blog, Travis went so far as to call Tennessee basketball "abysmal," predicting that next season's team, completely full of Martin's recruits, would be "awful, boring, and cost the university millions in unsold seats." The post was a call to fans to flood Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart with pro-Pearl emails and was led by a photo of Pearl and Travis smiling together.
Now, Cuonzo Martin is preparing his Vols for a Sweet 16 matchup with Michigan (Friday, 7:15 ET, CBS), only the seventh such tournament run in school history. Meanwhile, Pearl has taken a job with downtrodden SEC rival Auburn, arriving like a conquering hero at Auburn's tiny regional airport.
Martin's players are celebrating by giving media members like Andy Katz and Reggie Miller Stone Cold Stunners. Even the normally stoic Martin was moved to tweet out a celebratory selfie after UT defeated Mercer to reach the regional semifinals.
Barely five weeks after Martin's job status seemed its most tenuous, he and the Vols sit on top of the world. His players, once derided for questionable body language and a lack of discipline, now sound like a reflection of their all-business leader.
“We tried to stay away from all the criticism that this team has been receiving throughout the year,” forward Jarnell Stokes said after the win over Iowa (h/t ESPN). “It’s that’s our motivation, then we’re in it for the wrong reason."
The criticism had to be hard to ignore. More than 36,000 Volunteer fans signed an online petition to get Pearl rehired as UT's coach. Some were already demanding Martin's head more than a year before Pearl would even become available for consideration.
While never actively campaigning for the job, Pearl was still a visible figure in the Knoxville area, courting fans whether intentionally or not. Those fans would come to forgive the admittedly minor violations that tarred Pearl's tenure and the always-major mistake he made in attempting to cover them up.
Under all of this scrutiny, Martin kept attempting to improve his program to the satisfaction of fans spoiled by a rapid rise to basketball prominence and frustration over the struggles of the school's true bell cow, its storied football program.
Part of the unrest lies in Martin's preferred style of play. The Vols are one of four Sweet 16 teams ranking among both Ken Pomeroy's (subscription required) 20 most-efficient offenses and defenses, but they rank 325th nationally in adjusted tempo. Florida, Baylor, Virginia and Michigan all rank in the 300s as well, but those teams all have more than UT's 24 wins.
A coach can win slow or lose fast, but losing slow will make the natives restless.
CUONZO MARTIN: At the end of the day some people won’t like you no matter what you do. Can’t worry about it.— THE VOL ELITE (@TheVolElite) March 25, 2014
Toughness and defensive determination don't always show up in the box score that Joe Casual Fan reads after the game ends, but here's some information that did: An Iowa team that averaged 82 points per game this season scored only 65 against the Volunteers, and that was with five extra minutes. Only one point came from that extra session.
According to KenPom, UT became the first team since New Year's Eve to hold Iowa below one point per possession (PPP).
Success in getting his players to buy into a defense-first philosophy may be Martin's greatest coaching achievement in this SportsCenter-fed era where lots of dunks are equated with good basketball.
"They understand and I guess they realize when you defend at the level we're capable of defending at, these are the results behind it," Martin told CBS Sports before Tennessee defeated UMass in the second round. "They really bought into it and embraced the fact if we can defend the way we defend, you can still score the ball. Scoring is a lot better when you can defend."
Again per Pomeroy, Mercer was the first UT opponent to score more than one PPP since a Feb. 15 loss to Missouri. Since then, the Vols are 9-2, with the defeats coming on a buzzer-beater at Texas A&M and a late technical foul against Florida in the SEC tournament.
Stokes has crushed opponents in that span. Over those 11 games, the junior has averaged 17.5 points and 11.9 rebounds. He's a major mark against critics concerned about Martin's ability to recruit.
Stokes committed to UT as a midseason-eligible player in December of 2011, spurning elite programs like Kentucky, Florida and his hometown school, Memphis. He was the first elite prospect to cross the state from Memphis to Knoxville since Tony Harris in 1997. While Pearl started the ball rolling on Stokes' recruitment, Martin secured his signature mere months after being hired at Tennessee.
Pearl's knack for bringing in top-ranked recruiting classes has also been highly romanticized by the "Bring Back Bruce" Brigade. While Pearl brought in top-10 Rivals recruiting classes in 2006, 2008 and 2010, only two players from those classes—'06 forward Wayne Chism and current Vols scoring leader Jordan McRae—actually went on to play out their eligibility in Knoxville.
That's not because of a surplus of future pros either, as 2010 forward Tobias Harris has been the only Pearl recruit to see NBA minutes after leaving UT for the draft.
So, pending the unfolding of McRae's professional future, Martin may have signed just as many future NBA talents as Pearl did.
What Pearl did well is something that many future coaches will need to do to make basketball relevant at a football-mad SEC school not named Kentucky. Pearl is more P.T. Barnum than John Wooden, selling his program relentlessly while offering up wild antics and zany sound bites for radio pot-stirrers like Travis to chuckle over.
Expectations for UT's finish?
Antics and sound bites are not in Martin's repertoire. They never will be. His reluctance to be part of a sideshow has as much to do with the persistent fan unrest as his pace of play or his wins and losses. The media can sour on a coach quickly if he doesn't help make their job easy, unless he wins at an unassailable pace.
Martin did neither until this past month, when his team caught fire against admittedly underwhelming SEC opposition. To boot, UT's NCAA tournament opponents either backslid into the tournament—Iowa had lost seven of eight, UMass three of five—or, like Mercer, had pulled a Cinderella upset in their first game.
Tennessee didn't exactly run a gauntlet like Indiana did to win the 1976 national title; it simply started playing to its potential. Do that in November and lose the script thereafter, and the coach is cleaning out his desk. The team hits a groove in March, and the coach may get to sign an extension.
If not, at least he may get fans to demand one. A new petition has hit the Internet, this one requesting a raise and extension for Martin. It has only 209 signatures at the moment, a far cry from the pro-Pearl tally.
One more note on the Bring-Back-Bruce crowd: Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings memorably lashed out at Martin's critics in the Tennessean, referring to those who wanted a coach ousted after only three years as "idiots."
It used to be in this business guys got four or five years to show what they could do. The only thing that’s changed is people thinking that they ought to have more of a say in that, and then weak athletic administrations giving into that kind of pressure.
Hopefully, the powers that be over at Tennessee will tune those idiots out and give (Martin) the kind of time he deserves to do the job he needs to do.
For his part, vocal Pearl sympathizer Travis flip-flopped so hard after the Vols' season-ending rush that he bet $1,000 on Tennessee to beat Iowa. It seems that winning builds every coach a support system, even from unexpected sources.
Or perhaps, it's just another bandwagon fan spinning his team's success into some profit. Either way, most of Martin's critics appear to be placated.
Rough week for the Cuonzo-Martin-Can't-Coach-Crowd.— Seth Davis (@SethDavisHoops) March 24, 2014
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his podcast, check out The Back Iron. This week: talking Kentucky-Louisville with Louisville Courier-Journal writer Jeff Greer.