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Cuonzo Martin’s Tennessee years were undone by close losses and angry fans

Mercer v Tennessee Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Originally posted on March 23.

There are times during the annual coaching carousel when, in reference to a coach leaving a school, you’ll hear vague references to “fit.” It just wasn’t a good fit. The coach didn’t fit the culture. You usually don’t hear anything more concrete than that — on the record, at least. Everybody moves on their merry way.

When Cuonzo Martin left Tennessee, however ... it wasn’t left at “bad fit.”

"Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes, they were all like, 'Coach, you gotta get out of here,' " Martin tells me, his point being that what they proclaimed publicly matched their private words. "The guys were like, 'It's time to roll.' And it was time. I think everybody knew that." [...]

Lord knows some parts of the Missouri fan base were never on board with the Kim Anderson experiment.

Frank Haith was surprised enough by the pushback to his Mizzou hire that he joked about it in his introductory press conference.

Mike Anderson’s relationship with the base had certainly deteriorated over his last couple of years in charge.

Changing to the other major sport for a second, there was certainly a very loud, semi-influential portion of the base that wanted Gary Pinkel canned — in favor of “True Son” Gary Barnett, no less — in the mid-2000s.

Every fan base has its crazies, and Missouri is no exception. Some of those crazies even have money and carry influence. And every marriage between a school’s coach and its fans has ups and downs. Sometimes the downs get really far down.

Most of the time, though, your relationship with your coach has a direct correlation with how good your team is. The relationship between Cuonzo Martin and Tennessee wasn’t necessarily like that. And it went to a really weird, really public place.

According to a source close to Martin, a booster pulled Martin's access to a private plane on the day of a recruiting trip without explanation. Tennessee reduced its men's basketball budget by $1.6 million between 2010-11, which was Pearl's final season, and 2013-14, which was Martin's last season in Knoxville, per Football coach Butch Jones flew on a chartered jet to SEC meetings in Florida; Martin drove eight hours. As Martin felt the shift in the climate, the school's administration, Martin said, did not convey its support.

That frustrated him.

"When you have an administration, and there's a true petition, then your administration, I'd like to think, will stand up if they believe in you and say, 'Hey, that's it,'" Martin said. "Now, if that happened, great. If it didn't, so be it. If they believe and they stand up, but if you don't stand up, that means you're a part of it. That's how I take that. That's where I'm from. I don't think it was clear [where they stood]."

Kentucky v Tennessee
Bruce Pearl
Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Tennessee never got over Bruce Pearl. Pearl was fired for lying to NCAA investigators and was slapped hard with a show-cause penalty, the NCAA’s tool for making a coach toxic to hire or keep on staff. But when the Vols fired him, there was a booster revolt all the same. He had so ingratiated himself within the fan base that a good portion of said base was willing to deal with the consequences of keeping him. (As a Tennessee friend of mine pointed out, the fact that he so completely won over Pat Summitt made him the prince of Tennessee athletics to many eyes.)

That portion of the base certainly wasn’t ready to give some new guy a shot. And when Cuonzo Martin didn’t immediately improve Tennessee’s basketball fortunes — he didn’t really make them worse, but he didn’t make them better — a “Bring Back Bruce” petition began to circulate. Naturally, it was bolstered by the most noxious, toxic Tennessee personality in the national sports landscape.

This was the definition of a no-win situation for Martin from basically his first day on the job. He was quite far from perfect in his performance — we’ll get to that — and as my Tennessee friend put it, that seemed to allow Tennessee fans to lower the filter a bit. Some of the vitriol directed his way took on a racist bent.

Again, we all have our own skeletons in the closet, especially when it comes to racist sentiment among certain fans. This situation could have unfolded in a lot of places. This one unfolded in Knoxville. But it definitely got weird.

Hell, last Wednesday, when we caught wind of the fact that Martin was going to be announced as the likely hire later in the day, I started doing some prep work, one step of which was to create a Tweetdeck column of anything with the word “Cuonzo” in it. About 90 percent of the tweets at first were Tennessee fans still swearing he was terrible, many with an “and I swear I’m not racist!” addendum tacked on to the end.

This was really strange and unfortunate, from top to bottom, but how was Cuonzo Martin as a coach at Tennessee? He wasn’t nearly as awful as so many Vol fans painted him to be, but he left some wins on the table.

Let’s go to the stats.

Cuonzo Martin and Tennessee

Year KenPom Rk Coach W-L Tempo Rk Off Rk Def Rk
Year KenPom Rk Coach W-L Tempo Rk Off Rk Def Rk
2009-11 41 Bruce Pearl 23-12 93 60 48
2012 63 Cuonzo Martin 19-15 208 104 40
2013 73 Cuonzo Martin 20-13 281 65 101
2014 10 Cuonzo Martin 24-13 322 15 20
2015-17 84 Donnie Tyndall/Rick Barnes 16-17 177 73 113

Aesthetically, moving from Pearl to Martin was somewhat like moving from Mike Anderson to Frank Haith. The tempo slowed, and while the defense was often good, it wasn’t necessarily good in the same way. Tennessee played with far less pressure, preferring instead to limit what shots you’re allowed take and clean up on the glass. And did I mention the tempo slowed? Because it slowed a lot.

Also: the product didn’t immediately improve. In fact, it stayed almost exactly the same. In 2011, Pearl’s last season, the Vols went 19-15 with a KenPom ranking of 62nd. Martin’s first year: 19-15, 63rd. Martin changed aesthetics without immediate payoff. There wasn’t much payoff in the second season, either: went 20-13 and ranked 73rd. Again, almost exactly the same.

The slumps were frustrating, too. As had been the case at Missouri State, Martin’s teams fell into funks from which they couldn’t immediately emerge. When they did emerge, they were a house afire. But it took a while.

  • In 2011-12, the Vols started 3-2 with losses to two good teams and rose from 108th to 78th in KenPom. They then lost to Oakland, Pitt, Austin Peay, and Charleston. They were 8-7 and 124th when they knocked off Florida at home, then proceeded to lose five of seven. And then, in February and early March, they won eight of nine and rose from 111th to 52nd. Whew.
  • In 2012-13, it was a similar story. They started 8-3 but struggled to score and fell from 38th into the 60s. They lost four of five in January, then lost two more to fall to 11-10 and 102nd in early February. And then they won nine of 10 to rise to 20-11 and 62nd ... before losing to Alabama in the SEC Tournament and Mercer in the first round of the NIT.

This was quite the roller coaster, though I guess anybody who expected stability in an unstable environment might have been asking for too much.

In 2013-14, Tennessee broke through ... sort of. They were like LSU football in 2016, winning by huge margins and repeatedly losing by tiny margins. On February 26, they were 26th in KenPom, a huge step forward, but they were only 16-11.

In need of a late-season breakthrough to assure an NCAA Tourney berth, they got one. They beat Vandy by 38, Auburn by 28 (on the road), and Missouri by 27 (sigh), then pushed around Frank Martin and South Carolina in the SEC Tourney, 59-44. Despite a tight loss to an awesome Florida team, that got them in. And once in, they beat Iowa, UMass, and Mercer (revenge!) before falling in the Sweet 16, by two points of course, to Michigan.

Mercer v Tennessee
Tennessee in the 2014 NCAA Tournament
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Martin’s first two teams were unsteady, and his third team was definably awesome but dropped too many close games to win over the fan base. And with the vitriol continuing to rise, Martin took the first interesting job offer that came his way.

Cuonzo — Tennessee offense

Year Coach AdjO eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% FT% 3PA% A% APL
Year Coach AdjO eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% FT% 3PA% A% APL
2009-11 Bruce Pearl 60 139 102 69 169 64 288 213 190 145 67
2012 Cuonzo Martin 104 160 199 150 117 160 156 130 123 175 139
2013 Cuonzo Martin 65 206 184 38 31 147 269 197 222 309 244
2014 Cuonzo Martin 15 162 71 5 128 86 286 111 234 231 315
2015-17 Donnie Tyndall/Rick Barnes 73 258 113 65 184 236 255 119 207 188 199

Defense was a bit up and down for Martin in Knoxville, but for the offense it was a reset followed by steady growth. Pearl’s last team had been driven by height and size on the interior — Brian Williams was a bull on the offensive glass, and 6’7 Scotty Hopson and 6’8 Tobias Harris occupied most of the possessions.

Martin’s first team had none of those guys. Jeronne Maymon was solid, but Tennessee’s ranking fell dramatically in terms of both 2-point shooting and offensive rebounding. The assist rate went up, and Skylar McBee and Trae Golden triggered a 3-point shooting renaissance of sorts, but the total reset in both talent and type of talent led to a rankings reset. Tennessee’s offense fell out of the top 100.

It bounced right back in in Year 2. Sophomore Jarnell Stokes was around for the entire season (he played only 17 games as a freshman) and was every bit as dominant on the glass as Wiliams had been. He wasn’t an amazing scorer, but he got to the line a lot, and second-chance opportunities triggered overall improvement. So did Jordan McRae’s emergence as a solid go-to scorer.

In 2014, both McRae and Stokes came into their own. They both ended up in KenPom’s Player of the Year top 10, and Maymon’s return (he missed 2012-13) made Tennessee absolutely murderous on the glass. This team had problems from 3-point range, and the Vols’ one-note nature — McRae shoots, Stokes and Maymon hit the glass, and if that doesn’t work, then get back on defense — probably led to some of their close-game issues. Still, when it worked, it was deadly.

Cuonzo — Tennessee defense

Year Coach AdjD eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% Blk% 3PA% A% APL
Year Coach AdjD eFG% TO% OR% FTR 2P% 3P% Blk% 3PA% A% APL
2009-11 Bruce Pearl 48 131 98 118 195 160 82 86 300 143 221
2012 Cuonzo Martin 40 48 279 91 163 42 169 85 33 38 290
2013 Cuonzo Martin 101 77 299 60 134 94 73 130 31 66 299
2014 Cuonzo Martin 20 56 256 19 25 44 182 82 28 28 269
2015-17 Donnie Tyndall/Rick Barnes 113 157 124 275 267 126 213 57 188 214 122

Defense was all over the map. Martin’s first team actually improved on Pearl’s defensive ratings even while forcing far fewer turnovers. During his entire tenure, Tennessee prevented any sort of good looks from 3-point range, and when Maymon was around, Tennessee’s 2-point defense was good, too.

I like to use Bill Self as the prototypical example of a coach whose defenses let you think you’re getting a bunch of open shots when they’re actually giving you shots they know you can’t make. Martin’s Tennessee defenses appeared to be of that same mold. They prevented you from taking 3s, and if you got close to the rim, they were pretty good at blocking shots, too. They didn’t step into passing lanes all that often, though, and if you have the rare talent to actually make mid-range 2-pointers, you could do some damage. Most couldn’t.

There was a blip in Year 2. Tennessee ranked 40th defensively in 2012 and 20th in 2014, but without Maymon, opponents’ 2-point percentage rose, and Tennessee didn’t block nearly as many shots. The other rates stayed mostly the same, but leakiness on 2-pointers resulted in a stumble to 101st in overall defense. When Maymon returned, the Vol defense rebounded.

Mercer v Tennessee
Jarnell Stokes (5) and Jeronne Maymon (34)
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I almost wonder what might have happened for Martin in Knoxville had Maymon not injured his knee before the 2012-13 season. He and Stokes formed a devastating duo on the interior, and considering that Tennessee lost five regular-season games by six or fewer points* — and that flipping three or four of those would have resulted in a tourney bid — a healthy Maymon might have allowed Martin to generate more goodwill in his second year instead of waiting until late in his third to put the pieces together.

* 2012-13 was actually the only season in which Martin’s Vols had a winning record in games decided by six or fewer points or in overtime. They went 5-8 in 2011-12, 7-5 in 2012-13, and 1-6 in 2013-14. That overall 13-19 record in such games is a bit alarming, but it doesn’t appear to be much of a trend. Martin’s Missouri State teams were 17-19 in such games, and his Cal teams were 19-17.

Of course, that would have meant no Maymon in 2014. And besides that, you can’t really generate goodwill with a fan base that had made up its mind to dislike you before you even showed up. It’s not fair to paint the entire Tennessee fan base in a negative light because of that, but acceptance was enough of an issue for Martin in Knoxville that when he left for a parallel job, his players applauded him. It’s probably best for everyone involved that this marriage ended when it did.