Mike Strange: Steady as she goes: Cuonzo Martin's blueprint paying off

Mike Strange

Last October, a behind-the-scenes face in the Tennessee men's basketball crowd made an observation about this new coach named Cuonzo Martin.

The guy is always the same from one day to the next. From one hour to the next.

You wouldn't know whether he just won the Powerball or buried his dog.

The observation was meant as a compliment. At this advanced stage of the 2011-12 season, we can see why.

The Vols have weathered rough seas and emerged steering a course in the right direction toward March Madness and — big picture — into future seasons.

"You know what you're going to get," senior Cameron Tatum said Monday.

"It's going to be hard-nosed practices and hard-nosed games. He'll be straightforward with you all the time.

"It's very helpful."

This Tennessee team needed help. The majority of last year's rotation was scattered to the four winds along with the coaching staff that recruited them. It was a new ballgame.

"With a new coach," Martin said, "we didn't have the luxury of getting out of the gate with some confidence, with your head up.

"We had to have some tough losses and learn from it."

Tough losses like Austin Peay and College of Charleston the same week in December.

Like getting routed and taunted at Memphis. Like a 25-turnover fiasco at Vanderbilt that left the Vols 1-4 in the young SEC race.

Through it all, the new coach never wavered. From consistency comes confidence. The players knew what they were going to get.

"That's the way he's been, not just in basketball, but as a person since I've known him," assistant coach Kent Williams said.

"He's a very balanced person. He stays that way."

Williams has been coaching with Martin for seven years: three on Matt Painter's staff at Purdue, three more when Martin got the Missouri State job and now in the maiden voyage at Tennessee.

"He's been as consistent from day one as you could

possibly be," Williams said.

"Now he may tweak some things here and there, X-and-O wise, but as far as running our program and staying on top of it, that's his model. To be consistent."

It was a model that worked at Missouri State. Year One was a rebuild. The Bears finished 11-20. They won 24 games the next year, then 26 and a conference title the third year.

"There are definitely some parallels," Williams said. "That team had lost a lot of their best players and scorers. Same thing here."

Martin speaks of staying the course. He means it.

In the dark days of December some wondered, for example, if a zone defense wouldn't be a good idea.

"That's not who we are," Martin said Monday. "I remember as a player, when you see the coach constantly changing, he's in the huddle wavering, second-guessing, doubting, I understood what was going on.

"I fed off that, because you follow his lead."

That's not the lead Martin would have his players follow. There is a blueprint. You stick to it.

"Eventually," said Tatum, "you buy in."

In buying in, the team got tougher. It got smarter. The wins are coming. They don't come easily, but they're coming.

But losing in December or winning in February, the blueprint does not change.

You know what you're going to get. It's very helpful.

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 » 38

Ironcity writes:

Great article. I for one have screamed for a zone. I still think their is a place for it but I commend his coach Martins approach.

lomas98 writes:

in response to Ironcity:

Great article. I for one have screamed for a zone. I still think their is a place for it but I commend his coach Martins approach.

Coaches are stubborn when it comes to their system and beliefs. I agree some zone principles every now and then can help and actually surprise the opponent for a possession or two. For example, ga switched to a zone against us unexpectedly on the last possession of game when we lost to them down there. That was a surprise and they ended up winning.

But coaches coach for a reason and we are only fans. Bob knight never liked saying the word zone. Some will throw the kitchen sink at you. At least by him not changing, the players know what they have to do.

FORTKNOXVOL writes:

I have bought into CCM. After spending over 40 years in and associated with the Army I can tell you the best leaders are the ones that you never have a doubt of who they are, what they stand for, believe in, and expect. You will follow them anywhere and do what ever they tell you. TRUST. CCM is a leader. We are going far with this coach. I am ready to start making the 5 hour trip to watch BB live. I do it for FB but not yet for BB.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to FORTKNOXVOL:

I have bought into CCM. After spending over 40 years in and associated with the Army I can tell you the best leaders are the ones that you never have a doubt of who they are, what they stand for, believe in, and expect. You will follow them anywhere and do what ever they tell you. TRUST. CCM is a leader. We are going far with this coach. I am ready to start making the 5 hour trip to watch BB live. I do it for FB but not yet for BB.

I only had nine years active Army service, but I agree completely with what you said. One way I heard it was that ordering what may seem at first to be the wrong thing to do in a calm, decisive voice beats dithering to come up with a perfect solution that suits everybody. Even the wrong order may turn out to yield the right result if the troops trust their commander. I am a great believer in TACTICAL flexibility, but there must be no doubt about the overall strategic direction. I don't think Martin ever served in the military, but he seems to understand leadership right down in his bones, and his "troops" seem to follow him willingly, even enthusiastically.

VolunteerLifer writes:

My experience is that the most important ingredient in any human organization is leadership - by far. CCM has that, and I'm a Volunteer fan who is grateful for it.

eduardo writes:

Tough and hard nosed all of this translates to winning bball! Next yr this team will win at least 26 games

DwayneElizondoMountainDewHerbertCamacho writes:

Looks like Hamilton didn't screw this hire up.

IBAVolFan writes:

in response to DwayneElizondoMountainDewHerbertCamacho:

Looks like Hamilton didn't screw this hire up.

Time will tell the story

Razor784 writes:

in response to eduardo:

Tough and hard nosed all of this translates to winning bball! Next yr this team will win at least 26 games

Yep everyone except Tatum and Woolridge coming back, next year should be fun, although I think this team can hit way over 20 with a good run in the NIT

hateNCloveTN writes:

in response to FORTKNOXVOL:

I have bought into CCM. After spending over 40 years in and associated with the Army I can tell you the best leaders are the ones that you never have a doubt of who they are, what they stand for, believe in, and expect. You will follow them anywhere and do what ever they tell you. TRUST. CCM is a leader. We are going far with this coach. I am ready to start making the 5 hour trip to watch BB live. I do it for FB but not yet for BB.

Fort Knox, I agree with you, I have always paralleled team sports with the military (20 years Navy and daughter is now a Army butterbar). The similarities are amazing and I like you drive (but only 4 hours) to all home fb games and the occasional bb game. I think Martin will do very well and be here a long time if things stay on an even keel.

underthehill writes:

I have liked the way Martin has gone about his job from day one. Like a true professional with high character who sets the right example for his players. Guys who play for him will not only benefit from the experience as players but will be better men for the rest of their lives. I believe the parents of Stokes saw this and I believe other parents will as well.

FanNotSheep writes:

I don't think much scares him. He has seen too much growing up to be fazed by the idiots in Lexington or the end zone benches in Nashville. You can tell his players respect him – and trust him. The more success he has the easier it will be for him to get into the blue chips' homes. Once he gets there he should make a good impression on the families.

No wonder Memphis doesn't want to play us anymore. I could see Martin owning the town in two or three years, especially if Mr. Stokes is doing well in the NBA.

Sir_Spanky writes:

in response to DwayneElizondoMountainDewHerbertCamacho:

Looks like Hamilton didn't screw this hire up.

Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.... Having said that I wish MH the best. I think he's found his calling.

FanNotSheep writes:

I'd still like to see Martin hire Tony Jones to help install the inbounds pass defense that made Pearl's staff famous. I personally think Jones is a class act who would also help recruit.

CoverOrange writes:

in response to Sir_Spanky:

Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn now and then.... Having said that I wish MH the best. I think he's found his calling.

Pearl wasn't a bad hire. Despite how it ended, we are better off for having him as a coach.

SouthPaVol writes:

in response to FORTKNOXVOL:

I have bought into CCM. After spending over 40 years in and associated with the Army I can tell you the best leaders are the ones that you never have a doubt of who they are, what they stand for, believe in, and expect. You will follow them anywhere and do what ever they tell you. TRUST. CCM is a leader. We are going far with this coach. I am ready to start making the 5 hour trip to watch BB live. I do it for FB but not yet for BB.

I liked CCM from day 1. The only (small) thing I questioned was whether the media would leave a guy alone and let him coach that spoke in such monotones, esp after the Pearl era. It seemed to have worked. I returned home to E TN last week after 28 years in and associated with the Army, where I saw many different types of leaders. Some were successful, some not so much. I would only liken CCM to the best military leaders that I saw. He is rock-solid and instills confidence in his players. Those who want playing time will follow his defense first, hustle second, offense third approach. He knows what he wants and I like that about CCM.

writer#358485 writes:

I guess all the Martin haters from earlier in the season have taken a long walk off a short pier. Good riddance! Go Vols!

CrankE writes:

I'd like my crow medium well please.

I wasn't impressed with Martin as a new hire. It seemed another that Lord Hamilton, The Indecisive had made another rush hire to try and cover his own screw up.

But I'm buying Martin. He is coaching the team up and it shows. Right now, an NCAA tournament bid looks nearly impossible. Yet this team keeps scrapping and fighting for their lives.

I can't help but contrast this with Dooley. In November, a bowl berth looked likely for UT who needed only to beat Kentucky, but couldn't be bothered to even play for pride-much less fight for their season.

Martin is the real deal.

Bubba_Knows writes:

in response to CrankE:

I'd like my crow medium well please.

I wasn't impressed with Martin as a new hire. It seemed another that Lord Hamilton, The Indecisive had made another rush hire to try and cover his own screw up.

But I'm buying Martin. He is coaching the team up and it shows. Right now, an NCAA tournament bid looks nearly impossible. Yet this team keeps scrapping and fighting for their lives.

I can't help but contrast this with Dooley. In November, a bowl berth looked likely for UT who needed only to beat Kentucky, but couldn't be bothered to even play for pride-much less fight for their season.

Martin is the real deal.

And I'll have my steak medium rare. I told you boys he was a heck of a player and would be a hard nosed coach. I had the advantage of watching him play a lot in college and was extremely impressed with how he coached head to head against Pearl. I had zero question he would be a good coach if not a great coach. My only concern was and is can he recruit?

Bubba_Knows writes:

My only criticism of Coach Martin is that he hates zone defense so badly. I like Man to Man Defense better too but there is a time when zone works better and mixing defenses can be very confusing to an offense as well. For those of you who do not agree with me, I have a question for you. Don't you wish every team played us man to man all the time?

johnlg00 writes:

in response to FanNotSheep:

I'd still like to see Martin hire Tony Jones to help install the inbounds pass defense that made Pearl's staff famous. I personally think Jones is a class act who would also help recruit.

I certainly wouldn't object to having Jones back in any capacity, but most head coaches want their own assistants. At least a couple of Martin's assistants go way back with him. As for the out-of-bounds defense, I would REALLY love to see the Vols readopt it, but there should be plenty of game tape readily available to learn it from. Since it is largely a ball-denial man-to-man, the Vols have the right personnel and general defensive structure to implement it. It is just a matter of devoting the necessary practice time to perfect it. Now that most of the basic defensive philosophy has been installed and is becoming second nature to the squad, the vast majority of which is returning next year, some judicious tweaking may be in order.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Bubba_Knows:

My only criticism of Coach Martin is that he hates zone defense so badly. I like Man to Man Defense better too but there is a time when zone works better and mixing defenses can be very confusing to an offense as well. For those of you who do not agree with me, I have a question for you. Don't you wish every team played us man to man all the time?

As I suggested in my reply to the other poster about the Pearl/Jones out-of-bounds defense, the team may be ready for a few tweaks now. I am not sure just how Martin looks at his defensive philosophy, i.e., whether he is wedded to man-to-man defense AS SUCH, or if he has some deeper principle such as an ATTACK MENTALITY for his defense. If the latter, there is room for zones in certain situations, now that the players know that he expects them to be AGGRESSIVE in whatever defensive alignment they are playing.

To some players, playing a zone means they just stand in one spot and turn like lighthouses as the ball is passed around the perimeter. I was playing on an Army base team when the coach called for us to go into a 1-2-2 zone defense. I was on the low block on one side and the guy on the other side just stood there when the ball was passed into the corner. The shooter just caught the ball, casually lined up his shot, and nailed it. I asked my other guy why he didn't go out to challenge the shot, and he said, "Coach told us to play a zone!" The next time down court, the same thing happened; I yelled at the guy to go out and he took about a half-step, leaving him about eight feet away when the opponent drilled another one from the corner. The THIRD time down court, I literally shoved my guy out to cover the shooter, telling him not to worry if the guy drove around him, because that was why I was there. I wouldn't expect any similar learning curve if Martin decided to use a zone for a few plays a game.

thevoice writes:

in response to Bubba_Knows:

And I'll have my steak medium rare. I told you boys he was a heck of a player and would be a hard nosed coach. I had the advantage of watching him play a lot in college and was extremely impressed with how he coached head to head against Pearl. I had zero question he would be a good coach if not a great coach. My only concern was and is can he recruit?

Ditto on everything you wrote; I had the same thoughts when he was hired. Bubba may indeed know. I think many folk were disappointed when we determined he didn't have the college-kid (often times inappropriate/immature) charisma of his predecessor.

I would add that Martin's recruiting skills may actually be secondary to his coaching ability. It's hard to see his recruiting ability immediately, but judging from how he coaches the players he necessarily wouldn't have recruited to fit his own system (those that are on the team now), I'd say we're in good hands in the coaching ability category. With kids seeing this, plus the addition of Mr. Stokes, I believe his recruiting will be just fine.

About the only problem I have as an armchair point guard is why he's starting Stokes. He'll be good, but needs some seasoning.

thevoice writes:

in response to johnlg00:

As I suggested in my reply to the other poster about the Pearl/Jones out-of-bounds defense, the team may be ready for a few tweaks now. I am not sure just how Martin looks at his defensive philosophy, i.e., whether he is wedded to man-to-man defense AS SUCH, or if he has some deeper principle such as an ATTACK MENTALITY for his defense. If the latter, there is room for zones in certain situations, now that the players know that he expects them to be AGGRESSIVE in whatever defensive alignment they are playing.

To some players, playing a zone means they just stand in one spot and turn like lighthouses as the ball is passed around the perimeter. I was playing on an Army base team when the coach called for us to go into a 1-2-2 zone defense. I was on the low block on one side and the guy on the other side just stood there when the ball was passed into the corner. The shooter just caught the ball, casually lined up his shot, and nailed it. I asked my other guy why he didn't go out to challenge the shot, and he said, "Coach told us to play a zone!" The next time down court, the same thing happened; I yelled at the guy to go out and he took about a half-step, leaving him about eight feet away when the opponent drilled another one from the corner. The THIRD time down court, I literally shoved my guy out to cover the shooter, telling him not to worry if the guy drove around him, because that was why I was there. I wouldn't expect any similar learning curve if Martin decided to use a zone for a few plays a game.

Looks like that Army base team forgot about the "match-up" portion of zone defense.

madrigal writes:

I like Coach Martin. I like his emphasis on character as well as skill. You CAN have both!

jone8191#247590 writes:

"Won the Powerball or buried his dog" might be the best analogy I ever heard or read. Great job!!

John_10065 writes:

in response to Bubba_Knows:

And I'll have my steak medium rare. I told you boys he was a heck of a player and would be a hard nosed coach. I had the advantage of watching him play a lot in college and was extremely impressed with how he coached head to head against Pearl. I had zero question he would be a good coach if not a great coach. My only concern was and is can he recruit?

I think he is the kind of coach that players will want to a team member under. His peers said when he was hired that he was the kind of coach that players love.

We might not get many one and dones but I believe we'll get more than our fair share of excellent players that will play multiple years and develop into some great squads.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to thevoice:

Looks like that Army base team forgot about the "match-up" portion of zone defense.

Not all zones are "match-ups" as such, though all the best ones are, at least at times. Besides, many of the guys on service teams were mostly playground players who had never played an organized zone. However, my UNIT team had players who had or were offered scholarships to Iowa, Ohio State, and other college programs, several of whom were also on the base team. I was a freshman walk-on at UT in the early '60's. The base team played mainly a man-to-man and had rarely practiced a zone; in that game, we had some serious foul trouble, which was why we were playing zone in that situation.

John_10065 writes:

in response to Bubba_Knows:

My only criticism of Coach Martin is that he hates zone defense so badly. I like Man to Man Defense better too but there is a time when zone works better and mixing defenses can be very confusing to an offense as well. For those of you who do not agree with me, I have a question for you. Don't you wish every team played us man to man all the time?

The problem with the zone and how easily it's beaten with effective ball movement combined with pentration and perimeter shooting.

The zone moves to one side of the court, you pass around or over it for the open look. You penetrate and if it collapses dish back out to the perimeter for the open 3.

We haven't have a really good #1 guard this year to run the offense nor a consistant outside shooting game from enough players to really show the zone's weaknesses.

MothershipChip writes:

in response to thevoice:

Ditto on everything you wrote; I had the same thoughts when he was hired. Bubba may indeed know. I think many folk were disappointed when we determined he didn't have the college-kid (often times inappropriate/immature) charisma of his predecessor.

I would add that Martin's recruiting skills may actually be secondary to his coaching ability. It's hard to see his recruiting ability immediately, but judging from how he coaches the players he necessarily wouldn't have recruited to fit his own system (those that are on the team now), I'd say we're in good hands in the coaching ability category. With kids seeing this, plus the addition of Mr. Stokes, I believe his recruiting will be just fine.

About the only problem I have as an armchair point guard is why he's starting Stokes. He'll be good, but needs some seasoning.

Stokes is starting because of his physicality and Hall's suspension.

tennrich1 writes:

in response to Bubba_Knows:

My only criticism of Coach Martin is that he hates zone defense so badly. I like Man to Man Defense better too but there is a time when zone works better and mixing defenses can be very confusing to an offense as well. For those of you who do not agree with me, I have a question for you. Don't you wish every team played us man to man all the time?

Bubba, I think staying with the man defense really lends to the individual responsibility aspect that is the cornerstone of what CCM is all about. I may be reading too much into it but YOU either man up or you're exposed...I agree that there may come a time to throw a zone but all the hours of practice to be provenience at it probably isnt worth it to Coach Martin...Just my thoughts...

johnlg00 writes:

in response to John_10065:

The problem with the zone and how easily it's beaten with effective ball movement combined with pentration and perimeter shooting.

The zone moves to one side of the court, you pass around or over it for the open look. You penetrate and if it collapses dish back out to the perimeter for the open 3.

We haven't have a really good #1 guard this year to run the offense nor a consistant outside shooting game from enough players to really show the zone's weaknesses.

There is no such thing as a perfect defense against every kind of offense. The best defenses combine elements of man-to-man and zone. If it seems that a team is inside-oriented on offense and the defensive team can't match their size, strength, and skill, a packed-in zone might work best, though a sagging, switching man-to-man might do as well.

If a team relies on quickness and good outside shooting, a floating match-up zone or an aggressive ball-denial man-to-man could be the answer. Most coaches who favor man-to-man defenses like the fact that it establishes individual accountability and toughness in the players. Most coaches who favor zones are concerned about lack of depth, size, or quickness in their OWN players as much as they are about stopping the other team.

I would only say that I think it is good for a team to be able to play both man-to-man AND zone, both to be able to counter the strengths of any opponent and also to give the team practice AGAINST both kinds of defense.

AtopTheHill06 writes:

A consistent approach is the best way to get positive results from a team that has never really played together. The players gain confidence in knowing that they're coach will never panic and will always have a plan of action for them. Now this team must play with the confidence instilled in them by Coach Martin, EVERY GAME. And if they do this, the sky is the limit.

This is a little off topic, but go visit bleacherreport.com/college football. Scroll down to the SEC, and click on the Top Returning Offensive Playmakers article. Just a little reminder of the weapons that the Vols have coming back next year.

I don't know how to post a link from my phone. Sorry.

carbonzip writes:

in response to johnlg00:

There is no such thing as a perfect defense against every kind of offense. The best defenses combine elements of man-to-man and zone. If it seems that a team is inside-oriented on offense and the defensive team can't match their size, strength, and skill, a packed-in zone might work best, though a sagging, switching man-to-man might do as well.

If a team relies on quickness and good outside shooting, a floating match-up zone or an aggressive ball-denial man-to-man could be the answer. Most coaches who favor man-to-man defenses like the fact that it establishes individual accountability and toughness in the players. Most coaches who favor zones are concerned about lack of depth, size, or quickness in their OWN players as much as they are about stopping the other team.

I would only say that I think it is good for a team to be able to play both man-to-man AND zone, both to be able to counter the strengths of any opponent and also to give the team practice AGAINST both kinds of defense.

Why is the zone defense banned by the NBA? Is it a carry over from the pre-Chamberlain era when the key was actually shaped like a skeleton key hole?

johnlg00 writes:

in response to carbonzip:

Why is the zone defense banned by the NBA? Is it a carry over from the pre-Chamberlain era when the key was actually shaped like a skeleton key hole?

Zone defenses have been legal in the NBA for several years now. They do have some fairly subtle rules about how long players can stand in certain positions without directly guarding anybody, but they are legal. Red Auerbach said in a book I read many years ago that the zone was outlawed in the NBA when the 24-second shot clock was adopted. It was thought that was not enough time for teams to work the ball for good shots. Also, the pro game always been built on the star power of the players; zones limited their creativity on offense and hence the appeal of the game.

One main reason why zones are now allowed is the disparity in talent between the big-spending teams and the, uh, more frugal ones. Zones give teams with less talent a chance to stay competitive. Another reason for allowing zones now was the adoption of the 3-point shot. Teams with good shooters don't have to work the ball to point-blank range to have a chance to score well.

VolFanInTheBoro (Inactive) writes:

in response to IBAVolFan:

Time will tell the story

YouBaTroll

John_10065 writes:

in response to johnlg00:

There is no such thing as a perfect defense against every kind of offense. The best defenses combine elements of man-to-man and zone. If it seems that a team is inside-oriented on offense and the defensive team can't match their size, strength, and skill, a packed-in zone might work best, though a sagging, switching man-to-man might do as well.

If a team relies on quickness and good outside shooting, a floating match-up zone or an aggressive ball-denial man-to-man could be the answer. Most coaches who favor man-to-man defenses like the fact that it establishes individual accountability and toughness in the players. Most coaches who favor zones are concerned about lack of depth, size, or quickness in their OWN players as much as they are about stopping the other team.

I would only say that I think it is good for a team to be able to play both man-to-man AND zone, both to be able to counter the strengths of any opponent and also to give the team practice AGAINST both kinds of defense.

I don't disagree completely with your points but I've watched zones get picked apart over and over with the same tools I mentioned.

I personally don't think they have the same place they used to have in the game. I'm not saying they are obsolete, just not as practical as they used to be.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to John_10065:

I don't disagree completely with your points but I've watched zones get picked apart over and over with the same tools I mentioned.

I personally don't think they have the same place they used to have in the game. I'm not saying they are obsolete, just not as practical as they used to be.

Well, again, there are lots of reasons why teams choose the defenses they do. Syracuse has done pretty well with zones over the years, and no one could say they don't have top-quality talent. Beating zones requires deft, fearless ball-handlers, precision passers, and strong catchers of the passes. As we have all seen, those skills are not widely distributed among college teams these days. Oddly enough, as zones become less prevalent they potentially become more effective because teams see them and practice against them less. Great individual offensive talent has more scope to operate against man-to-man defenses; zones on the other hand can usually only be defeated by patience, teamwork, and at least the threat of good outside shooting. A good coach ideally matches his defense with the personnel he has to play it and the strengths of the opponents he is trying to defend against.

As to your last point, despite the fact that zones are legal in the NBA, it is still mainly a man-to-man league. That means that players who aspire to the pros know that they have to be at least decent at man-to-man defense if they are to be high draft choices, unless of course they have a HUGE offensive upside. Therefore, coaches who want NBA-type players have more incentive to use man-to-man defenses both for recruiting purposes and to prepare their guys for the pros.

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