Mike Strange: Vols' learning curve requires patience

Mike Strange

Skylar McBee played 38 minutes at Florida on Saturday. When Tennessee played the Gators a month ago, he played four.

Find the rhyme to this sequence:

Jordan McRae played eight minutes against Vanderbilt then 25 against Auburn then six against Kentucky then 24 against Georgia.

Renaldo Woolridge didn't play at all against Auburn, then surprised Kentucky with 25 minutes and 17 points. Since Rupp, he's played seven combined minutes in three games.

The above disparities are not the symptoms of a schizophrenic coach. They're the symptoms of a new coach and a new team trying to get on the same page.

That coach, Cuonzo Martin, is 25 games into his first season at Tennessee. The Vols are down to six regular-season games remaining, starting with Arkansas on Wednesday night.

"You look at a new coach and a new team, this is probably what happens,'' Martin said Monday. "You're trying to find your rotations and you don't know them.

"It's not a case where I had three returning starters where I know what these three guys can do. Everybody is trying to find their way.''

Martin inherited only one returning starter, Cameron Tatum, Everybody else is trying to find their way not only with a new coach but in a new role.

The process has been smoother for Trae Golden and Jeronne Maymon than for the rest of the roster. As the minutes come and go, frustration is inevitable.

"I think there's that point in the season for everybody,'' McRae, a sophomore, said. "Everybody has their ups and downs.''

Even the coaches.

As Martin evaluated his players in both practice and game situations, there had to be times when

he was tempted to rush to judgment.

Fans do it. The media does it. The trick for the coach is to not give in to that temptation.

"Even though,'' Martin said, "sometimes you say, 'Can this guy help us? Is this guy working hard? Does this guy want to be a part of it?' You never write 'em off.''

McRae and McBee are examples of guys that have persevered through their frustrations and are thriving as the Vols move closer to the postseason.

"I think it helps being a coach's son,'' said McBee, a junior, "just to know that you have to trust in his system. You have to trust that he's doing the best thing for our team.

"You've got to stay even throughout the season. Sometimes your number is gonna be called and sometimes it ain't.

"That's the way the game works.''

McRae is one of the more gifted offensive talents on the team. It's taken a while, but he has learned the secret to success.

"Playing defense is the way to Coach's heart,'' he said. "You'll always get an opportunity if you play defense.''

There were nights — or days in the practice gym — when McRae didn't play defense. But Martin didn't write him off and McRae's growth is apparent.

"It's a long season,'' Martin said, "and as frustrated as you may be over one guy, if he's willing to grow and learn, then you're willing to work with him.''

Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews.com. Follow him at http://twitter.com/strangemike44 and http://blogs.knoxnews.com/strange.

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Comments » 28

FeelVol writes:

Love this one Mike!!!Keep working Vols.

atnvol#283282 writes:

Mike Strange is the class of the Knoxville media journalist. He does not stoop to "attack" journalism like most of the others, and yet he will give a straight answer when asked of his opinion(Sports Source appearances). I guess you could call him "old school" of the Ben Byrd type journalist.....but I prefer to call him refreshing. Thank you Mike Strange.

Regards, Mike Young

iowavol writes:

in response to atnvol#283282:

Mike Strange is the class of the Knoxville media journalist. He does not stoop to "attack" journalism like most of the others, and yet he will give a straight answer when asked of his opinion(Sports Source appearances). I guess you could call him "old school" of the Ben Byrd type journalist.....but I prefer to call him refreshing. Thank you Mike Strange.

Regards, Mike Young

In reality, you are saying he won't stoop to the easy cheap shots like the dumb A adams. I couldn't agree more.

If anyone else asks why Cam Tatum is starting, you have to think they are not reading any of Coach's comments. Obviously, you have to play D first. Good to see the energy that has created on both ends of the floor.

tovolny writes:

I like coach Martin. He has successfully molded a whole new image for the round ball Vols. What stands out are their toughness, their heads-up effort, and their mental awareness on how to actually play the game.
I am very pleased with our guys. GBO.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to tovolny:

I like coach Martin. He has successfully molded a whole new image for the round ball Vols. What stands out are their toughness, their heads-up effort, and their mental awareness on how to actually play the game.
I am very pleased with our guys. GBO.

Seems like some time since one could say all of those things about most of the players most of the time. I think the effort has been there almost all the time for all of them. The physical toughness has been there most of the time for a few of them. The MENTAL toughness is the part where we have seen the most improvement across the board. The Vols may or may not win all the rest of them, but I don't think they will lay any more eggs like they did against APSU, UK, and Vandy, to name a few. Great job, Coach Zo! Great job, Vols, in growing this year! Keep up the good work!

jamgod writes:

I've gotten on hear and for sure, have called this team one of the Stupidest in the nation. Some of the earlier things that were going on with the team warrented such an outburst in my opinion. But I was just thinking this today as I was watching the replay of the games and my mindset was that of, "These guys are not making the same, really stupid mistakes that I kept on seeing game after game!" They actually look like they have gotten better and have at least tried to wise up a bit and start appreciating the fact that they get to play the game and for the U of Tenn. I can only say that I hope this trend continues because if it does, then I think we are looking at a team that can play and hold their own against any team in the nation...at least maybe on a neutral floor. So hears to hopefully smarter basketball and a possible NCAA birth????

johnlg00 writes:

in response to jamgod:

I've gotten on hear and for sure, have called this team one of the Stupidest in the nation. Some of the earlier things that were going on with the team warrented such an outburst in my opinion. But I was just thinking this today as I was watching the replay of the games and my mindset was that of, "These guys are not making the same, really stupid mistakes that I kept on seeing game after game!" They actually look like they have gotten better and have at least tried to wise up a bit and start appreciating the fact that they get to play the game and for the U of Tenn. I can only say that I hope this trend continues because if it does, then I think we are looking at a team that can play and hold their own against any team in the nation...at least maybe on a neutral floor. So hears to hopefully smarter basketball and a possible NCAA birth????

That simply shows that you are an intelligent person, my friend. You look at what is before you, understand what you are seeing, and judge by what you see. You don't feel the necessity of defending everything you ever thought before, no matter how much things have changed. That puts you a LONG step ahead of all too many I could name on here.

Sir_Spanky writes:

What's not to like in the recruiting wars? Whether your talking about a player or a parent, it looks to me like he's got a lot to offer.

GreeneVol writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

His temperament is no doubt a plus for the program. Now if we could get a hot Tatum and a healthy Stokes...

johnlg00 writes:

in response to slaw_way:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

I have always thought Martin's temperament was his best asset. He projects an air of calm professionalism. He knows what he wants the players to do and how to tell them in a way they understand.

Think of the difference between a warrior and a soldier. I didn't create this distinction, but it is as applicable to sports as it is to warfare. The warrior is all about emotion, display, and intimidation. He is fighting for glory as much as for victory. The soldier is all about discipline, maximizing advantages, surviving, and, ABOVE ALL, victory.

At their best, coaches like Pearl, Nolan Richardson, and Jerry Tarkanian were like leaders of warrior bands. They wanted their players to play like warriors, with energy and passion. When it worked, it broke opponents' will and led to routs. When it didn't, when opponents survived the initial onslaughts, they didn't always have an alternate strategy or mindset to sustain the attack. Their teams often wore THEMSELVES out from effort and emotion and lacked the execution and discipline to settle themselves down.

Other coaches like John Wooden, Bob Knight, and Coach K, to name a few, saw themselves more as generals leading soldiers. They emphasized fundamentals, teamwork, and maintaining poise under pressure. Of course, Wooden really saw himself as more of a teacher, but the points of emphasis were the same as for the others.

Martin is more in the mold of this group than he is of the other. Teams and coaches in this mold may not have the highest of highs when everything is working right, but they almost never have the lowest of lows, and they will nearly always have a CHANCE to win.

Ironcity writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I have always thought Martin's temperament was his best asset. He projects an air of calm professionalism. He knows what he wants the players to do and how to tell them in a way they understand.

Think of the difference between a warrior and a soldier. I didn't create this distinction, but it is as applicable to sports as it is to warfare. The warrior is all about emotion, display, and intimidation. He is fighting for glory as much as for victory. The soldier is all about discipline, maximizing advantages, surviving, and, ABOVE ALL, victory.

At their best, coaches like Pearl, Nolan Richardson, and Jerry Tarkanian were like leaders of warrior bands. They wanted their players to play like warriors, with energy and passion. When it worked, it broke opponents' will and led to routs. When it didn't, when opponents survived the initial onslaughts, they didn't always have an alternate strategy or mindset to sustain the attack. Their teams often wore THEMSELVES out from effort and emotion and lacked the execution and discipline to settle themselves down.

Other coaches like John Wooden, Bob Knight, and Coach K, to name a few, saw themselves more as generals leading soldiers. They emphasized fundamentals, teamwork, and maintaining poise under pressure. Of course, Wooden really saw himself as more of a teacher, but the points of emphasis were the same as for the others.

Martin is more in the mold of this group than he is of the other. Teams and coaches in this mold may not have the highest of highs when everything is working right, but they almost never have the lowest of lows, and they will nearly always have a CHANCE to win.

Thats a pretty fair assessment. I like what I have seen recently but I am not ready to crown Martin a General just yet. I never felt this team was as void of talent as so many have implied. I did like that Martin has been able to mold the team in the way he has wanted.

I think the next 6-8 games will determine whether he has been successful. In basketball we fans tend to get to up and to down from game to game. This team has played two good road games this year and only won one of them. Even if Alabubba is short its big men I think that game along with tomorrows game will determine where this team is heading.

I am also glad that Martin finally put another shooter/ballhandler in the back court. It really has helped the team and cut down on the turnovers recently. Now if only Tatum can become an average offensive player

ProfessionalHandicapper writes:

The Florida wins are the only quality wins the entire season. Most likely Florida loses again tonight for loss number 3 in a row. UT caught the Gators down off the Kentucky blowout. The truth remains UT is too weak inside vs true Big men. Kentucky and Vandy both led this team by 25 points most of the way. Most likely UT finishes 2-4 the rest of the way. LSU,Vandy,Arkansas and Bama just too big inside. Bama will be motivated off the suspensions, LSU has a true 7 footer inside, we already saw Vandy with Ezeli dominate this team in all area's and nobody can match up with Taylor, and Arkansas can play. Ole Miss is great at home, but beatable away. S car is helpless. I say 2-4 to end the season. Not a cut down on Martin or Ut, just an honest oppinion of matchup problems.

AllVol311 writes:

in response to ProfessionalHandicapper:

The Florida wins are the only quality wins the entire season. Most likely Florida loses again tonight for loss number 3 in a row. UT caught the Gators down off the Kentucky blowout. The truth remains UT is too weak inside vs true Big men. Kentucky and Vandy both led this team by 25 points most of the way. Most likely UT finishes 2-4 the rest of the way. LSU,Vandy,Arkansas and Bama just too big inside. Bama will be motivated off the suspensions, LSU has a true 7 footer inside, we already saw Vandy with Ezeli dominate this team in all area's and nobody can match up with Taylor, and Arkansas can play. Ole Miss is great at home, but beatable away. S car is helpless. I say 2-4 to end the season. Not a cut down on Martin or Ut, just an honest oppinion of matchup problems.

only 2 quality wins? i guess you didnt see the UConn game....you know the defending National Champions....

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Ironcity:

Thats a pretty fair assessment. I like what I have seen recently but I am not ready to crown Martin a General just yet. I never felt this team was as void of talent as so many have implied. I did like that Martin has been able to mold the team in the way he has wanted.

I think the next 6-8 games will determine whether he has been successful. In basketball we fans tend to get to up and to down from game to game. This team has played two good road games this year and only won one of them. Even if Alabubba is short its big men I think that game along with tomorrows game will determine where this team is heading.

I am also glad that Martin finally put another shooter/ballhandler in the back court. It really has helped the team and cut down on the turnovers recently. Now if only Tatum can become an average offensive player

Well, GREAT generals are usually only afforded that honor after their careers are over. I was just trying to find a way to explain Martin's overall approach to the game. As a rule, would-be great generals don't want their soldiers haring all over the countryside doing their own thing; they want them to train, live, fight, and WIN as a disciplined unit.

Besides, it is not that the team was VOID of talent, it's just that the talents they brought into the season didn't mesh well together. That is what Martin has done, i.e., find a way to blend the talents they do have to create the best mix as a whole. That has been the key to the success they have been having lately.

bkgunter writes:

in response to jamgod:

I've gotten on hear and for sure, have called this team one of the Stupidest in the nation. Some of the earlier things that were going on with the team warrented such an outburst in my opinion. But I was just thinking this today as I was watching the replay of the games and my mindset was that of, "These guys are not making the same, really stupid mistakes that I kept on seeing game after game!" They actually look like they have gotten better and have at least tried to wise up a bit and start appreciating the fact that they get to play the game and for the U of Tenn. I can only say that I hope this trend continues because if it does, then I think we are looking at a team that can play and hold their own against any team in the nation...at least maybe on a neutral floor. So hears to hopefully smarter basketball and a possible NCAA birth????

First, if you are going to throw around the "stupid" word, you might want to learn the differences between "here," "hear," "here's," and "hears." Second, NOTHING is worse than a fan who proclaims stupidity with every disappointment. These games are high-level competitions against other highly trained and talented personnel. Every battle lost isn't a mistake---much less a stupid one. The system Coach M has established was a radical departure--and a trip that had to be made with the two best players from last season in the pros early. Mistakes are a part of the learning process, though, so "Here's to hearing from you here again and again."

johnlg00 writes:

in response to AllVol311:

only 2 quality wins? i guess you didnt see the UConn game....you know the defending National Champions....

I hardly EVER say this, but PH may be right to ignore the UConn win. For their game with us, their starting PG was suspended for some reason and their bench was short to begin with. Plus, Calhoun has not only been under NCAA pressure all year, he has serious health problems that caused him to hang it up for the rest of the season. UConn has been slumping badly and may not even make it to the NCAAs this year. Do not be fooled by the name on the front of the jersey; this team is NOT the one that won the championship last year.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to bkgunter:

First, if you are going to throw around the "stupid" word, you might want to learn the differences between "here," "hear," "here's," and "hears." Second, NOTHING is worse than a fan who proclaims stupidity with every disappointment. These games are high-level competitions against other highly trained and talented personnel. Every battle lost isn't a mistake---much less a stupid one. The system Coach M has established was a radical departure--and a trip that had to be made with the two best players from last season in the pros early. Mistakes are a part of the learning process, though, so "Here's to hearing from you here again and again."

Surely you can give a LITTLE credit for admitting that he was wrong, when there are so many others on here turning themselves and the language inside out still trying to justify their past errors in judgment. I try to be precise in my use of language, but we would be missing a lot of pretty good stuff on here if we insisted that everybody else be flawless at it.

johnlg00 writes:

CORRECTION: He didn't actually say he was wrong in his earlier judgments, he was just reacting to what surely SEEMED like stupid play at times in earlier games. Others said similar things. He did give the team credit for NOT playing "stupid" now, but there are still "fans" on here who CONTINUE to say "stupid" things about the team and coach and apparently feel no shame about it.

bkgunter writes:

in response to johnlg00:

CORRECTION: He didn't actually say he was wrong in his earlier judgments, he was just reacting to what surely SEEMED like stupid play at times in earlier games. Others said similar things. He did give the team credit for NOT playing "stupid" now, but there are still "fans" on here who CONTINUE to say "stupid" things about the team and coach and apparently feel no shame about it.

Exactly. He no longer tantrums and calls the players "the stupidest in the nation." That's not the same as admitting "he was wrong in earlier judgments."

AtopTheHill06 writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I have always thought Martin's temperament was his best asset. He projects an air of calm professionalism. He knows what he wants the players to do and how to tell them in a way they understand.

Think of the difference between a warrior and a soldier. I didn't create this distinction, but it is as applicable to sports as it is to warfare. The warrior is all about emotion, display, and intimidation. He is fighting for glory as much as for victory. The soldier is all about discipline, maximizing advantages, surviving, and, ABOVE ALL, victory.

At their best, coaches like Pearl, Nolan Richardson, and Jerry Tarkanian were like leaders of warrior bands. They wanted their players to play like warriors, with energy and passion. When it worked, it broke opponents' will and led to routs. When it didn't, when opponents survived the initial onslaughts, they didn't always have an alternate strategy or mindset to sustain the attack. Their teams often wore THEMSELVES out from effort and emotion and lacked the execution and discipline to settle themselves down.

Other coaches like John Wooden, Bob Knight, and Coach K, to name a few, saw themselves more as generals leading soldiers. They emphasized fundamentals, teamwork, and maintaining poise under pressure. Of course, Wooden really saw himself as more of a teacher, but the points of emphasis were the same as for the others.

Martin is more in the mold of this group than he is of the other. Teams and coaches in this mold may not have the highest of highs when everything is working right, but they almost never have the lowest of lows, and they will nearly always have a CHANCE to win.

Love your analogy, comparing emotion-based coaches to fundamentalists. However Bobby Knight deserves to be categorized as an emotion-based coach. He could not control those emotions, and this was one of the things that led to him leaving IU.

carbonzip writes:

I see improvement in every player in the rotation. I like the discipline they are showing on offense (especially at the end of the game). Coach Martin's offense is simple give and go and works well if the players don't get too fancy and take really good shots.

dwa7#337691 writes:

early predict:

UT 70
Arky 63

CoverOrange writes:

in response to AtopTheHill06:

Love your analogy, comparing emotion-based coaches to fundamentalists. However Bobby Knight deserves to be categorized as an emotion-based coach. He could not control those emotions, and this was one of the things that led to him leaving IU.

Is intimidation an emotion? I don't remember ever seeing BK dramatically out of control. Even the chair incident was calculated for effect. Threw the chair then stood there waiting for the T.

mocsandvolsfan writes:

UT 69
Arkanville 62

mocsandvolsfan writes:

in response to CoverOrange:

Is intimidation an emotion? I don't remember ever seeing BK dramatically out of control. Even the chair incident was calculated for effect. Threw the chair then stood there waiting for the T.

He stood there 'cause he couldn't believe he missed.hehe

johnlg00 writes:

in response to AtopTheHill06:

Love your analogy, comparing emotion-based coaches to fundamentalists. However Bobby Knight deserves to be categorized as an emotion-based coach. He could not control those emotions, and this was one of the things that led to him leaving IU.

The problem with Bob Knight was that ultimately he couldn't control his OWN emotions. In that sense, he was the ultimate "do as I say, not as I do" hypocrite, because he insisted on his players controlling their emotions and, during his great years, he mostly got them to do so. Now that he has taken himself out of the pressure-cooker he largely put himself in, he is one of the most articulate, if highly opinionated, commentators on the subtleties and fundamentals of the game in the media today. It seems, though, that he might still be a little too blunt at times for his employers, since he hasn't really cracked the #1 ESPN coverage crew.

johnlg00 writes:

PS: People are complex and are often driven by multiple, sometimes contradictory, motives. The point I was trying to make was not about what drives the coach, or even how the coach drives the team, it was about what the coach drives the team to DO. It is easier to cultivate an air of calmness and attention to fundamentals if the coach himself mirrors that to his team, but at least to some extent a coach can be a raving maniac himself and STILL field teams that play with methodical, relentless efficiency.

Volunteer_Pride1794 writes:

Great article Mike!! Always refreshing to get on this site and see some great writing, and coverage of the Vols that isn't just pure negativity. As for the basketball team, Coach Martin said this team would be completely different come February, and they are just that. Different. They play with a different demeanor and they KNOW what they NEED to do to win. The team has come along nicely and if they win out, I think they are worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. No team has grown up through as much adversity than them. Go Vols!!

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