Cuonzo Martin on his first SEC media day
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Cuonzo Martin appeared more comfortable answering questions at SEC Basketball Media Day than some of the media members who were asking them Thursday afternoon.
Even when the lines of questioning turned curious, which they invariably do when new coaches come to the league, the only SEC rookie coach in the room never broke a sweat.
A Kentucky media member said he heard Martin never met former UT coach Bruce Pearl.
"I know Coach Pearl,'' Martin said.
"Do you?'' the reporter replied skeptically.
"Oh yeah,'' Martin said.
The reporter kept fishing: "You look like I'm accusing you of something.''
Martin unleashed a hearty laugh to end the exchange.
It was the eighth and final time Pearl's name came up in the 43-minute interview, which was surpassed only by the 11 times Martin was asked about his Purdue mentor, former coach Gene Keady.
Martin didn't bat an eye or break a sentence in handling hundreds of questions from some 34 reporters who took a turn at his table.
If the Vols show as much poise as Martin did when pressed Thursday, they stand a chance of bettering the SEC preseason media projection of them finishing 11th in the league.
Martin later explained why he didn't take issue with any of the questions about Pearl.
"He was the coach at Tennessee, so you have to answer the questions,'' Martin said. "Anywhere you go, you're going to get asked about the last coach ... it's unfortunate what happened for him not to be here, and he (Pearl) isn't a bad guy.''
At least part of the issue for many interviewing Martin was they weren't sure what or who to ask about: UT returns only one starter, junior Cameron Tatum.
And, as Tatum told a group of reporters moments before Martin opened up his interview, the Vols' starting lineup "is still up for grabs, including myself.''
Martin said he liked how his team was competing, and he said he doesn't feel any pressure entering his first season at UT.
"Not at all,'' Martin said. "There are some very talented teams, but at the end of the day, it's when you play them, how you play them and how they're playing, and if you have a good plan you have a chance to win.''
And how does he expect his players to buy in to his system?
"I don't know if there are many options outside of buying in,'' Martin said.
Martin said defense will be a "mainstay" of his program, but he added that the Vols have three players he feels can score with or without a play call: Tatum, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden.
The questions teetered between the court and his personal life, and while Martin didn't turn the media day into a soap opera, he didn't shy away from self disclosure, even revealing he was named after a doctor.
After correcting a questioner who mispronounced his name — "You say it like it's spelled C-O-N-Z-O, even though there's a 'U' in it,'' — Martin told the story of how he got his name.
"My grandmother,'' Martin said. "The doctor that delivered my dad, he was an Italian, and that was his name. When I went to play (professionally) in Italy, there were a lot of people named Cuonzo.''
Martin also shared the story of how he would have likely signed with Illinois had the Fighting Illini not been under NCAA investigation for its recruitment of Deon Thomas.
Pearl, of course, played a role in that investigation; as an assistant at Iowa, he turned in Illinois.
The irony was not lost on anyone: twice, incidents involving Pearl have had a significant impact on Martin's basketball future.
Cuonzo Martin at SEC Media Days
"So I've got to thank him then, for this opportunity right here,'' Martin said. "I've never had a problem with Coach (Pearl); I think he's a good man.''
The consensus at SEC Media Day was that Martin is, too.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, like Martin a former Purdue player and assistant coach, said as much.
"He's an excellent coach, a very good person, a guy who is an extremely hard worker and very full of character,'' Stallings said. "I think the people of Tennessee and Knoxville will enjoy him.''
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32