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UT athletic director Dave Hart used a lengthy offseason interview with the News Sentinel to reinforce exactly that. There were no surprises or fresh vantages. He’s pleased with Martin. He’s pleased with the progress.
“I feel good about where we are and where we’re moving,” Hart said. “Cuonzo Martin is going to do the right thing. There’s never a doubt there.”
But a de-facto objective still persists for Tennessee and its second-year coach.
“In the big picture, basketball is a tournament sport,” Hart said. “Let’s make no doubt about it, the goal for everybody in the country — every coach and AD in the country — is to make the tournament. And there is only one tournament.”
And that is the NCAA tournament.
The Vols are coming off back-to-back NIT appearances.
Martin inherited a threadbare program two years ago — pulled and ripped by an NCAA scandal, a publicized and criticized coaching change and an exodus of talent. Today, Hart says, the holes are patched and the shirt fits.
Martin is 39-28 overall in two years and 21-13 in SEC play. He’s notched three top-25 wins and is the only coach other than Kentucky’s John Calipari to have beaten every league team over the last two-year span.
Conversely, two early exits from the SEC tournament still burn. Both left UT short of reaching the NCAA tournament and sent the Vols to the NIT.
And both times, Tennessee lost at home in the NIT.
Hart noted that second- and fifth-place finishes in the SEC in 2011-12 and 2012-13 are “a far better measuring stick” of overall progress. He said they now need to capitalize.
“I think it takes time to establish a program — your own program with your expectations and your standards,” Hart said. “I think we’ve made a lot of ground in that regard.”
Fair or not, Martin operates in a vast shadow wearing orange suspenders. Before being dismissed, former coach Bruce Pearl set the bar high, averaging 24 wins per year and making the NCAA tournament in all six of his seasons. He propped up that bar with barnstorming salesmanship.
Martin was not hired by Hart. The 41-year-old coach came to Knoxville from Missouri State, plucked by former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton in March 2011. Hart came to campus five months later.
Three years remain on the original five-year contract worth $1.3 million annually that Martin signed upon his hiring. That salary ranks 11th among the SEC’s 14 coaches.
Asked if any renegotiation or extension has been considered this offseason, Hart responded, “When we think we’re at a point where we have something to say about any of that, we’ll do so at the appropriate time.”
Hart added that he doesn’t believe a coach having less than four years remaining on a contract can impact recruiting.
“I think it’s overstated, I do,” he said. “I’ve never spent a lot of time focused on how many years this person or that person has left. We evaluate coaches the same.”
So with that, interest turns to how Martin will be judged in 2013-14 compared to his first two seasons. The Vols return a chunk of talent in Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson, welcome back Jeronne Maymon from injury and greet high-profile newcomers Robert Hubbs, a five-star recruit, and Antonio Barton, a transfer from Memphis.
“We evaluate (coaches) on an annual basis — and that’s every coach we have,” Hart said. “And I’ll go back to where I started — I think Cuonzo Martin has done a terrific job managing and leading these players and our program. You look for progress. That’s what everybody looks for.”
The Vols’ current offseason has been marred by some unforeseen roster turnover. Point guard Trae Golden left the program amid a dustup of academic misdoings. Incoming freshman Travon Landry was asked to request a release from his National Letter of Intent because of what Martin called a “missevaluation” of his talent.
Hart pointed to heavy roster fluctuation across the college basketball landscape.
“There is some roster transition in virtually every program,” Hart said. “We monitor it very closely in all of our sports. If you see trends that go beyond the norm, then you have those conversations. I think we’re fine right now where we are with our roster.”
Hart also gives little credence to a slight drop in attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols averaged 19,895 fans per game from 2007 through 2010, ranking fourth nationally in attendance each year. Since then, that figure dropped to 18,952 (fifth) in 2011 and 16,543 (seventh) in 2012.
UT averaged 17,395 in 2013, ranking sixth.
“I think anybody who questions our attendance is — that’s silliness,” Hart said. “I really do think that. I’ve said this many times, we have the most passionate fan base in the country. I applaud our fans. When you’re in the top half-dozen in attendance, we don’t have any concern there.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn