We’re a little over a week into the University of Tennessee’s basketball practices and I’m already starting to buy into head coach Cuonzo Martin’s Kool-Aid.
Martin has preached hard work and physicality ever since taking over the team last March.
While many schools began their practice with much-ballyhooed Midnight-Madness-style practices consisting of slam dunk and three-point contests, Martin’s Vols were hard at it in a mostly empty gym, running drills with 20-pound weight vests attached.
It reminded me of Rocky III, when Rocky Balboa trained for his first fight against Clubber Lang in a unfocused, circus-like atmosphere while Lang trained alone in a basement with no distractions and one thing on his mind—winning.
I’m not going to go into a big "Eye of the Tiger" rant here, but I think the message is clear that Martin means business.
Last year, players were clearly distracted by a NCAA investigation, a coach (Bruce Pearl) trying to hold onto his job and two players (Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson) more focused on pro basketball aspirations than winning.
Without those distractions, Martin is getting focus from the players to teach a new motion offense while also emphasizing a defense-first mentality.
Despite the perception of a rebuilding project for the Vols, there’s enough talent on this team to make the Martin transition successful this year.
Blue Ribbon Basketball Yearbook editor Chris Dortch points out in the publication that “among the returning players, six were rated by various analysts as four-star recruits. Martin never coached a four-star player at Missouri State.”
While none of those players have lived up to four-star expectations, it shows that players on the squad have a ceiling to grow in over the next five months.
Tennessee has seen quick transitions before.
Bruce Pearl took over an undersized team in 2005, installed a flex offense and full-court pressure defense, and then went on to win the SEC East and the No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament.
While those would be high expectations for this year’s team, a shot at the NCAA tournament is not out of the question.
Motion offense rewards creativity, and the Vols have the offensive players like Trae Golden, Jordan McRae and Cameron Tatum to create.
The big question comes on the defensive end.
While Martin has added some big bodies to fill the paint, it’s unsure if they’ll have the skills to compete at the SEC level.
Mike Griffin of the Knoxville News Sentinel reported Friday that Renaldo “Swiperboy” Woolridge, known more for his soft perimeter play, will be playing in the post.
Unskilled, undersized, defensive post players become nothing more than designated foul givers against bigger teams.
While fouling comes in handy against teams that can’t hit their free throws like Kentucky, more often than not it’s giving free points to opponents.
But even with the size disadvantage, it is starting to get exciting in Knoxville.
There are plenty of winnable games on the schedule, and it should be fun to see how Martin continues to put the pieces together.
I originally had the Vols pegged for between five and 10 wins, but upon further review, they can win between 15 and 20.
If a couple of those wins are over ranked opponents, the Vols will be back in the Big Dance for the seventh straight year.