Cuonzo Martin before practice Thursday
Cameron Tatum on UT's first SEC tournament game
NEW ORLEANS — Cuonzo Martin's defensive mindset runs deeper than scouting reports and Xs and Os scheming.
There's more to it than the physical practices the first-year Tennessee men's basketball coach commonly holds, where there is no out of bounds and no fouls called in the absence of blood.
It goes all the way back to Martin's youth, when he played basketball in the East St. Louis, Ill., projects known as The Hole.
"You don't want a guy scoring on you and talking trash if you're a competitor, and you don't want to lose," Martin said. "If you want to stay on the court and keep playing, you've got to win."
The stakes and environment have changed, but Martin has taught his team to take the same approach entering tonight's SEC tournament game at the New Orleans Arena.
The No. 2-seeded Vols (18-13) play seventh-seeded Ole Miss (19-12) tonight (TV: WVLT, 7:30 p.m.) needing a win to keep their hopes alive for an NCAA tournament at-large berth. A loss tonight would most surely resign UT to a berth in the less prestigious, but still valuable National Invitation Tournament.
Martin, however, isn't considering losing against the Rebels, whom his team defeated earlier this season, 73-60.
Neither the game plan nor approach have changed.
"I'm not hanging my hat on every shot, if it's made or missed," Martin said prior to Thursday's practice at New Orleans Holy Cross School. "But we can't live without defense. That's a way of life if you're going to wear the Tennessee uniform."
The Vols held SEC opponents to an average of 61.6 points per game this season, representing the program's best defense since the 1968-69 season. That UT team — playing before the introduction of the shot clock (1986) — held league opponents to 60.9 points per game.
But it's hardly a numbers game for the Tennessee players.
"If you don't play defense, you're coming out of the game, that's understood," senior Cameron Tatum said. "You could have just hit two shots in a row, but if you miss an assignment, Coach will pull you.
"Early on, that was kind of surprising, because some of the stuff seemed kind of minor. But to play perfect defense, you have to be anal about everything, so we are."
The mindset on the Tennessee team is such that power forward Jeronne Maymon, who leads the team with 16 charges drawn, took offense when the SEC honors came out.
Maymon was named to the second-team All-SEC team — that wasn't a problem for him.
"Being on the SEC All-Defensive team would have meant a lot more to me," Maymon said. "I think I held all the top guys in our league below their season average in scoring."
UT freshman power forward Jarnell Stokes, named to the All-SEC Freshman team, also took note of the All-SEC Defensive team.
"Jeronne should have definitely been on it," Stokes said, "because he can go out on the perimeter and take on guards or play down low."
Another facet of Martin's defensive philosophy involves what he refers to as a "brotherhood" approach.
"We pride ourselves on team defense; you help your teammate, and you know someone always has your back out there," Martin said. "That's why we have our guards help out rebounding, because sometimes our big guys can get out of position coming out (on the perimeter) and hedging on ball screens."
Martin has said from the time he was hired that his preference was for UT to exclusively play man-to-man defense.
"It's about pride, not letting your man beat you," said Martin, a defensive stopper during his playing career at Purdue 1992-95. "There ain't no magic tricks, it's not about being a super hero. It's hard work, and you've got to be a warrior at all times."
Martin was named to the nation's "All-Defensive Team" in 1995 by ESPN commentator Dick Vitale, and he judges his players by their defensive efficiency more so than how they're playing on offense.
Tatum served as proof throughout the season, as the lanky 6-foot-7 wing maintained his spot in the starting lineup despite an 10-for-52 (19.2 percent) shooting slump that ranged the eight games UT played from Jan. 24 through Feb. 18.
Martin's decision to continue to play Tatum sent a message throughout the team that the Vols' coach was serious about his defensive dictum.
Martin is convinced UT's season-ending run of eight wins in the past nine games has been keyed by his players collectively buying into the same strategy he took to the hardcourt of his run-down East St. Louis neighborhood.
"I believe our defense has finally got to the point it can win us ball games," Martin said. "Now, our team is relying on it.
"It's one thing to talk about playing great defense, it's another thing to do it."
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32