Mike Strange: True Cuonzo Martin-era identity (defense) finally emerges

Mike Strange

Tennessee's biggest concern is turnovers, Cuonzo Martin revealed Monday. Yes, turnovers.

The biggest plus?

"The biggest plus for us as a staff right now is team defense,'' Martin said.

Yes, team defense. Imagine that.

Team defense, a subject near and dear to the coach's heart — right there next to winning — has flip-flopped from biggest concern to biggest plus.

Happy New Year.

At the end of November, a lot of us were wondering how we were so off base on what we expected the new era to be like. The first six games into Martin's first season were almost an extension of the Rocky Top Summer League.

The Vols were playing up-tempo, firing at will. Opponents were scoring 84.7 points a game.

Now we know we weren't so off base after all.

In three SEC games — all against top-20 opponents — it doesn't look like Rocky Top anymore.

In SEC play, UT opponents are scoring 61.0 points a game, shooting only 40.6 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from 3-point range.

This is Cuonzo Ball. This is team defense.

All three of the above numbers are very close to the goal Martin had in mind before the season tipped off.

"We tried the 90-point thing and came up short,'' he said. "We have to be a tremendous defensive team and that's the way I'll be as long as I'm part of this program.''

They came up short, for instance, against Memphis, 99-97, in Maui and then 89-81 at Oakland.

UT's three SEC scores: a 67-56 win over Florida, a 62-58 loss at Mississippi State, a 65-62 loss to No. 2 Kentucky.

The difference isn't that Martin did a 180. There was no New Year's resolution to ditch the run-and-gun and grind it out.

No, 67-56 is what he had in mind when Mike Hamilton introduced him last March. But first he and his team had to traverse the learning curve.

In November, Martin was still identifying his personnel, their strengths, weaknesses and inclinations. And they were sizing him up.

"And we're playing live games,'' Martin said. "The

games don't stop, so you try to make those adjustments in game situations.''

One notable adjustment was inserting Josh Richardson and Renaldo Woolridge into the starting lineup for SEC play.

Richardson, a Martin signee, is a defender by trade. Jordan McRae, whom he replaced, is not. Woolridge, a senior, brings high energy. Kenny Hall, the man he replaced, has responded positively off the bench.

Things are looking up. But ingraining defense is a work in progress.

"We have to get the mindset where we hate for teams to actually score baskets against us,'' Martin said. "Once we get that, we can make another step.''

Winning at Georgia on Wednesday would be the next step.

"We've all bought into the system,'' Hall said. "Continue to play hard and grind it out and amazing things can happen.''

Sneaking into the NCAA bracket would qualify as amazing. In all likelihood, the transformation — and Jarnell Stokes — came too late for that.

"From Florida to now, you say (is UT) one of the 65 or 68 best teams?" said Martin. "I would say yes.''

Because team defense has become the biggest plus, not the biggest concern.

Now, about those turnovers.

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 » 21

budd#207344 writes:

in response to MOUNTAINofOKEMO:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

And better fans

brokebackvol writes:

Hey CCM - where's your Big Orange blazer??

murrayvol writes:

in response to brokebackvol:

Hey CCM - where's your Big Orange blazer??

Cuonzo is a workhorse, not a showhorse. Maybe later.

murrayvol writes:

This team is hard to watch at times. They're also hard to beat.

If they play every game the way they've played the last 3, the NCAA is a possibility.

woodwr#217203 writes:

in response to brokebackvol:

Hey CCM - where's your Big Orange blazer??

Orange ties are bright enough.

It is nice to see free throws made.

It is nice to see position rebounding.

Against Kentucky, the Volunteers looked tired at the end; maybe we need even deeper rotation.

tennrich1 writes:

in response to woodwr#217203:

Orange ties are bright enough.

It is nice to see free throws made.

It is nice to see position rebounding.

Against Kentucky, the Volunteers looked tired at the end; maybe we need even deeper rotation.

To me that's a good sign....tired at the end...I believe our dogging defense that held #2 Kentucky below their season average will result in fatigue at the end of the game....We just need to find a way to overcome it...I am very excited with the new rotation in place...hopefully we can win some of those 50-50 type games now...

RoyaltyVol writes:

Turnovers was a big problem last year as well. I'm hoping coach Martin can get this team to turn the ball over less. Cam Tatum has always been bad at this, somebody needs to work one on one with him on this problem.

Ayres_Hall writes:

in response to murrayvol:

Cuonzo is a workhorse, not a showhorse. Maybe later.

Well done, murrayvol.

hikerdude writes:

They were tired at the end of the Kentucky game. But, you need to remember they had played MSU in Starkville less than 48 hours earlier.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to murrayvol:

This team is hard to watch at times. They're also hard to beat.

If they play every game the way they've played the last 3, the NCAA is a possibility.

I love watching these guys play, Murray. I'll admit there is a certain aesthetic pleasure in watching guys run up and down the floor, firing away with abandon, dazzling everybody with their athleticism. Still, the skill set which that style emphasizes is rather limited. There is no premium on precision passing, selective shooting, solid screening, position rebounding, and floor balance to name just a few "old-school" virtues. I'll also grant that the fast-paced game appeals more to most players and to the more casual fans. The slower-paced game is more of a coach's game and appreciated more by sophisticated fans. At bottom, it is like a preference for West-Coast style football over the Bama-LSU SEC variety, on which opinions vary widely across the country.

As for the NCAAs, the disciplined game holds up better under tournament pressure than the run-n-gun game. It is easier to slow down a fast team than it is to speed up a slower team. It's great to have the team ABILITY to run when the occasion arises, but DEPENDING on running it out rarely wins championships. I think the Vols still have a chance to make it to the Big Dance, but they can't let any more winnable games get away. If they don't beat UGA Wednesday and UConn on Saturday, that will just about finish their chances of making it this year, unless they win the SEC tourney, which nearly everybody would say right now is unlikely.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to tennrich1:

To me that's a good sign....tired at the end...I believe our dogging defense that held #2 Kentucky below their season average will result in fatigue at the end of the game....We just need to find a way to overcome it...I am very excited with the new rotation in place...hopefully we can win some of those 50-50 type games now...

I think you are right about the Vols being tired at the end of the UK game, but did you and the poster you responded to consider that maybe the late game at MSU and the late arrival Friday morning might have finally caught up with them by then? Also, although the Vols weren't bouncing all around arena in the early going, they were probably pretty fired up at the start, but by the last five or 10 minutes of the game the adrenaline has long since stopped pumping, and adrenaline spikes are usually followed by noticeable crashes.

I thought the Vols went pretty deep into the bench as it was. They just need to hope they don't get any more kinks in the schedule such as they faced last week. It will also help when they aren't playing ranked teams back-to-back. I do agree that the guys really seemed to leave it all on the floor in both the MSU and UK games; in that way, as you say, the fatigue at the end was a good sign.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to hikerdude:

They were tired at the end of the Kentucky game. But, you need to remember they had played MSU in Starkville less than 48 hours earlier.

What you said. Also, I heard the announcer say that the staff was on the job checking class attendance at 8:00 AM. I know these guys are young and strong, but it should be recognized that they need their rest, too. In fact, I have seen some research that shows that athletes, and teenagers/young adults generally, need more sleep than older folks, but rarely get as much as they really need.

VolunteerLifer writes:

in response to RoyaltyVol:

Turnovers was a big problem last year as well. I'm hoping coach Martin can get this team to turn the ball over less. Cam Tatum has always been bad at this, somebody needs to work one on one with him on this problem.

I hate single anyone out, expecially someone like Cam, who has really stepped up defensively and effort-wise on both ends. But the truth is, I cringe whenever he starts dribbling. He seems to dribble it too far from his body, and it gets taken from him frequently. He and McRae are the same way: They need to either slash to the bucket without the ball or catch and shoot from where the catch it, but please don't dribble-drive.

wigmeister writes:

We need a real bona fide point guard whose job is shutting down the opponent's guard. We need a guard that takes pride in awesome passes, and assists, not scoring as a primary focus. We need a guard that handles the ball like a magician, and rarely gets stripped. We need bona fide outside shooters, something we have not really had since Lofton left. We need players that like to get down and dirty on D. We need post players with the mindset that the area in the paint is mine. Stay away or get overpowered. We need players that can finish, not miss layups. We get that, we will be a force to be reckoned with.

murrayvol writes:

in response to johnlg00:

I love watching these guys play, Murray. I'll admit there is a certain aesthetic pleasure in watching guys run up and down the floor, firing away with abandon, dazzling everybody with their athleticism. Still, the skill set which that style emphasizes is rather limited. There is no premium on precision passing, selective shooting, solid screening, position rebounding, and floor balance to name just a few "old-school" virtues. I'll also grant that the fast-paced game appeals more to most players and to the more casual fans. The slower-paced game is more of a coach's game and appreciated more by sophisticated fans. At bottom, it is like a preference for West-Coast style football over the Bama-LSU SEC variety, on which opinions vary widely across the country.

As for the NCAAs, the disciplined game holds up better under tournament pressure than the run-n-gun game. It is easier to slow down a fast team than it is to speed up a slower team. It's great to have the team ABILITY to run when the occasion arises, but DEPENDING on running it out rarely wins championships. I think the Vols still have a chance to make it to the Big Dance, but they can't let any more winnable games get away. If they don't beat UGA Wednesday and UConn on Saturday, that will just about finish their chances of making it this year, unless they win the SEC tourney, which nearly everybody would say right now is unlikely.

Good points.

We need to remember these guys are barely halfway through a 180 from Pearl Jam to the CCM template.

By season's end Stokes will be jaw dropping good. I've talked with several UK fans this week who couldn't believe how polished he looked with limited practice and no game experience. We're gonna love this guy and this team as well.

JSamson7 writes:

in response to MOUNTAINofOKEMO:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

At least you got rid of JOKEMO

yea!!
that lame-o....
oh NO (not KNOW) I didn't...
oh YES I did!!

johnlg00 writes:

in response to VolunteerLifer:

I hate single anyone out, expecially someone like Cam, who has really stepped up defensively and effort-wise on both ends. But the truth is, I cringe whenever he starts dribbling. He seems to dribble it too far from his body, and it gets taken from him frequently. He and McRae are the same way: They need to either slash to the bucket without the ball or catch and shoot from where the catch it, but please don't dribble-drive.

Spot-on about both Cam and Jordan. They both seem to try to take the ball to the rim on straight-line drives with long strides that make it hard for them to change direction. They need to approach the defense a little slower with smaller steps, identify the gaps, and then EXPLODE through them. I agree that both of them are pretty good on the catch-and-shoot. The biggest problem for both on that is that they aren't always ready to shoot on the catch. It would help if they would catch the ball and immediately at least raise it to the "triple-threat" position to see how the defense reacts before shooting or driving. They often seem to make up their minds what to do before they consider this.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to murrayvol:

Good points.

We need to remember these guys are barely halfway through a 180 from Pearl Jam to the CCM template.

By season's end Stokes will be jaw dropping good. I've talked with several UK fans this week who couldn't believe how polished he looked with limited practice and no game experience. We're gonna love this guy and this team as well.

Oh, absolutely right about the change from the Pearl team mentality, and I don't mean to say anything bad about that. A new coach coming into an existing team culture is like moving to a foreign country for all concerned. Both the spoken language and the body language, as well as the unspoken assumptions, are all different from what everybody is used to. It takes time for all concerned to learn to communicate naturally, without using the phrase-book, so to speak. I think the team and the staff are really starting to "get" each other. Too bad we can't start the season over now!

One_in_West_Knox writes:

in response to wigmeister:

We need a real bona fide point guard whose job is shutting down the opponent's guard. We need a guard that takes pride in awesome passes, and assists, not scoring as a primary focus. We need a guard that handles the ball like a magician, and rarely gets stripped. We need bona fide outside shooters, something we have not really had since Lofton left. We need players that like to get down and dirty on D. We need post players with the mindset that the area in the paint is mine. Stay away or get overpowered. We need players that can finish, not miss layups. We get that, we will be a force to be reckoned with.

Good post. Not all bigger, stronger, taller, more athletic, and longer-armed all-American players can just flock to Kentucky. But in this current "I-want-a-national-championship-now" and "I-want-to-go-to-the-NBA-now" world...

One_in_West_Knox writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Spot-on about both Cam and Jordan. They both seem to try to take the ball to the rim on straight-line drives with long strides that make it hard for them to change direction. They need to approach the defense a little slower with smaller steps, identify the gaps, and then EXPLODE through them. I agree that both of them are pretty good on the catch-and-shoot. The biggest problem for both on that is that they aren't always ready to shoot on the catch. It would help if they would catch the ball and immediately at least raise it to the "triple-threat" position to see how the defense reacts before shooting or driving. They often seem to make up their minds what to do before they consider this.

What has Cam learned from five years?? Unless he just wants out...

One_in_West_Knox writes:

Here's where a "dork" (actually spelled D-O-R-C, and standing for Defense, Offense, Rebounds, and Consistency) can help this team. To borrow from "Star Wars," may the DORC be with the Vols!!

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