A coaching search firm was scouting Cuonzo Martin as early as November 2010, but few would have guessed at the time that Tennessee would be his next stop.
Martin certainly had no idea when he left Thompson-Boling Arena following a 60-56 men's basketball loss on Nov. 17, 2010, that the next time he entered the building it would be as head coach of the Vols.
"At the time, it was just a tough loss," Martin said Friday night. "I didn't leave there thinking, 'one day, I'll be the head coach here.' "
But on March 27, 2011, that's exactly what happened in the wake of an NCAA investigation that led to the firing of former coach Bruce Pearl and his staff.
A month-by-month look at Martin's first year with the Vols:
Martin remembers getting the call from Tennessee two days before officially announcing he would accept the position.
"I had 48 hours to make the decision," Martin said. "It was a case where I sat down with my wife and family and weighed the decision. We had options."
Martin wouldn't discuss what other schools had offered him a position, but he did reveal that UT's fan base was the overwhelming factor.
"I wasn't looking at it from the standpoint of what happened with the NCAA; I was looking at stability, and the fan base," he said. "The fan support and attendance showed me Tennessee likes basketball. Bruce (Pearl) and his staff had the fan base very involved at an impressive level."
"At that point, they had it thought out as far as what they were doing," Martin said. "They had people in place to give them guidance.
"I tried to let them know I could help them, but they didn't know what I was about. At the end of the day, I had to respect their wishes, because they are both members of the Tennessee basketball family."
Martin instead focused on the returning players, and the two weeks he had to work with them.
"I wanted to get a feel for the guys, where they were dribbling, passing, conditioning," Martin said. "All the guys, outside of Tobias and Cameron (Tatum) hadn't played a lot. I didn't get a great gauge, but I got a feel for the team."
May is typically a downtime month, because coaches can't go off campus to recruit, and they can't work with the players.
But Martin and his new staff were still settling in and getting familiar with their surroundings.
"We were taking care of lot of the administrative things and loose ends," Martin said. "And then we did the Big Orange Caravan."
Martin had been on similar alumni outings as an assistant at Purdue and during his three years as head coach at Missouri State.
But the Vols fans were more inquisitive.
"There were a lot of questions," Martin said with a chuckle. "They were probably still thinking when they looked at me, 'Who is this guy?' I talked to them about our players and all of our workouts."
Martin launched his youth and advanced basketball camps, knowing the turnout likely would be modest as he and his staff were still very new to the community and had yet to have the opportunity to show their identity.
"A lot of the top older kids who come to (advanced) camp had already narrowed their choice of schools, but we had a lot of the younger guys," Martin said. "The good thing about the younger guys, they are usually pretty gung-ho, so it was mission accomplished.
"We also did a father-son camp that we had a good turnout for, so that was exciting."
Martin caught many off guard when he showed up for the Pilot Rocky Top League draft, sitting in a corner booth, quietly observing.
"Those were the guys that were going to coach my players for a few weeks," Martin said. "So, yes, I was very interested in checking that out."
Martin also was interested in spending some time with his family; his children finished school earlier in the month and were finally able to move to Knoxville.
Martin was burning to hit the recruiting trail, and he did so with a dictum: all orange and white gear for his assistant coaches.
"You're representing Tennessee, so you have to go out there in your orange and white," Martin said. "There's nothing wrong with black with an orange T on the one or two days your other stuff was being cleaned.
"But everyone knows, I want orange and white. I want the recruits to identify us and see us."
Martin said he received many congratulations from his fellow coaches.
"They know Tennessee is a good job, and they know the SEC is a good league to coach in," Martin said. "Your friends all want to see you become successful, and they were happy for me."
Martin started individual workouts mid-month and began tweaking the individual skill sets of his players and envisioning how they might fit together.
"You're only allowed four guys on the floor max, and you only have two hours a week with the players," Martin said. "But we were able to begin to implement our different schemes, our philosophy and our defensive tendencies."
Team drills began in September, and Martin remembers feeling incredible energy from his players each day in Pratt Pavilion.
"We had great enthusiasm, to the point where we were wild in a lot of areas. But we had great energy and that was good.
"The one thing about a motion offense, you can put guys all over; like next year, now that Jeronne (Maymon) and Jarnell (Stokes) understand what we're doing, they'll be on the perimeter some, and our guards will go inside and post up.
"We didn't do as much of that this past fall, because we were just getting the guys to understand the offense and how to play hard more than anything else."
Martin kept the momentum rolling once official practice sessions began, with players competing against one another for starting positions.
Martin had a general idea of what to expect from the SEC preseason Media Day in Birmingham, Ala., but he was somewhat taken aback to see his team picked to finish 11th before he had even arrived.
"I was thinking, well, maybe they are right, or maybe they are wrong," Martin said. "There were still so many unknowns for us: I didn't know the go-to guy, leading scorer, or who could make big shots or defensive stops.
"I knew one thing, if the guys bought in and played hard, we could be OK. But then, I also wondered if maybe they knew something I didn't know."
Martin said he didn't take it personal, because the media saw only one returning starter.
"What they didn't know, and couldn't know," he said, "was that our team would get better as the season went along."
The Vols had a couple of good tests in their exhibition games, getting valuable experience in their victories against Division II schools Carson-Newman and Lincoln Memorial before breezing through UNC-Greensboro and Louisiana-Monroe heading into the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
UT led through parts of the first half against Duke before falling 77-67, and the Vols rallied to push Memphis into overtime before falling 99-97 in the second OT period. An easy 86-60 victory against Division II Chaminade closed the trip.
"More than anything, the team gained confidence that we could compete," Martin said. "Because of how we played, I felt we had the pieces, but there was a lot of work to be done. The guys were feeling good about themselves. We represented Tennessee the right way even though we came up short."
A road-weary UT team fell at Oakland, Mich., to close November, and December didn't start out much better as the Vols suffered home losses to then-No. 17 Pittsburgh and underdog Austin Peay before a road loss to College of Charleston.
"It was one of those deals, you're coming back from Maui, going to hostile environment at Oakland, where we probably didn't give them the respect they deserved," Martin said. "Then Pitt out-rebounded us.
"Austin Peay, we had a huge lead, let it slip, and didn't play well as a team and in some ways got selfish. People were getting shots up because we were winning, and Austin Peay got their heads up."
Martin leaned harder on his players, knowing a good UNC Asheville team (that eventually took Syracuse to the wire before falling in the NCAA tournament) was capable of beating Tennessee.
The Vols responded with a 72-68 victory that sparked a four-game winning streak to close the 2011 calendar year.
The new year started with a thorough whipping at Memphis, 69-51, where Martin and his players were exposed to loud jeers of "hillbilly," and "redneck," and other terms that left Martin's family members leaving the arena shaking their heads.
The Vols also left the arena with Memphis product Jarnell Stokes, who had signed his scholarship papers and sat on the team bench after graduating from Southwind High School just two weeks earlier.
Stokes still wasn't playing in the next game when UT shocked Florida in both teams' SEC opener.
"More than anything, the energy of SEC play kicked in for us against Florida," Martin said. "As a coach, you look at it in three seasons: preseason, conference and postseason.
"Florida was a great opponent, the guys were ready, ESPN was there and it was a great atmosphere," Martin said. "Once we got that win, I felt that was the turning point for our program. We competed, and we took the next step. Our guys needed to beat a quality opponent to get that self-confidence back."
Martin said the other key to the season was how the team embraced Stokes, who came off the bench his first two games before starting his third in a 60-57 victory against then-No. 13 Connecticut.
"The key was Jarnell is a good guy, and the guys on the team are good guys," Martin said. "They embraced each other. I've seen teams struggle with guys coming in the fall, but he comes in for a week, he's in the game, he's taking other people's minutes, and our guys made it a smooth transition. I was proud of them."
No one would have guessed after UT lost at Kentucky by 25 points that the Vols were on the verge of one of the best regular-season finishes in school history.
But that's what happened, as UT won eight of its final nine regular-season games, including a 7-1 February.
"The thing was, our guys were continuing to get better even in those earlier-season losses," Martin said. "Jarnell was finding his way, Jordan McRae started playing some good basketball. All the parts started working together."
The month started with a 68-61 home victory against Vanderbilt in both teams' regular -season finale. The next day, Kentucky beat Florida and the Vols found themselves with the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament — well above the preseason pick of No. 11.
UT, however, couldn't make it work: A determined Ole Miss team knocked off the Vols, 77-72, in overtime in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament in New Orleans.
The loss knocked UT off the NCAA tournament's proverbial "bubble," and left the team feeling disappointed it had not taken advantage of the opportunity it had created for itself.
"We could say we were gung ho about the NIT, but there's a lot taken out of you when you don't get in the NCAA," Martin said. "From where we started, we realized we may not be in any postseason. But then we put ourselves in position.''
The Vols won their first-round National Invitation Tournament game, 65-51 over Savannah State. But an accomplished Middle Tennessee State team in the midst of its best season in school history overcame a late eight-point deficit and rallied for a 71-64 victory in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Martin was pleased with the season, but he made no attempt to hide his disappointment with the final minutes of the final game.
The day after the loss, the Vols got a verbal commitment from a prospect who can play point guard, and Martin made it clear none of the starters from this season have starting positions heading into next season.
"It's going to be a good summer, all right," Martin said. "We're going to work to be one of the best teams in the nation next season. That's the way it has to be."
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32