Mike Strange: Vols' win over Arkansas reflects well on Cuonzo Martin

Mike Strange
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin watches as his team shoots free throws against Arkansas during the second half at the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Tennessee won 81-74. (ADAM LAU/NEWS SENTINEL)

Photo by Adam Lau

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin watches as his team shoots free throws against Arkansas during the second half at the Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2014. Tennessee won 81-74. (ADAM LAU/NEWS SENTINEL)

Cuonzo Martin on UT's 81-74 win over Arkansas

Tennessee and Arkansas have a connection that extends beyond a Mississippi River border.

A couple of basketball coaches, Cuonzo Martin and Mike Anderson, are marching in step while trying to restore programs to their former eras of success.

Martin got the best of it Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. His Vols rallied to win a crucial head-to-head showdown, 81-74.

In Martin’s case, his program’s heyday is still fresh (very fresh) in everyone’s mind. The Bruce Pearl Era, from 2006-11, was as good as UT basketball has ever been, with six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances.

Arkansas is a 20th Century story. Here is a passage from Anderson’s official Arkansas bio:

“He is now charged with bringing back the winning tradition that was synonymous with the Razorback program throughout the ‘80s and ’90s.’’

Martin and Anderson both arrived at their current posts within days of each other in March 2011. There’s another link in that story.

Anderson left Missouri to return to Fayetteville, where he had been a 17-year assistant under Nolan Richardson while the Hogs were living large. Anderson has a 1994 NCAA title ring and nearly got another in ’95 when the Razorbacks were runners-up.

Within days, the Vols hired Martin from Missouri State to replace Pearl. It’s likely UT felt a sense of urgency, believing Martin could come in play at Mizzou or at Purdue, his alma mater, if Matt Painter left Purdue for Missouri. (He didn’t.)

Almost three years later, neither Martin nor Anderson have gotten their respective restoration projects over the hump.

And make no mistake, Wednesday night’s game carried heavy implications for a couple of programs flirting with NCAA tournament bubble status.

The Vols could not afford another home loss. Don’t even think about it.

Arkansas badly needed a road win, a must-have on NCAA tourney resumes.

The Razorbacks looked good for the road win when freshman Moses Kingsley sprinted for a transition layup and 63-55 lead after a Jarnell Stokes turnover.

The Vols were in a world of hurt.

But with 11 minutes to shepherd home its precious road win, Arkansas fell prey to familiar demons. Yet another home team rallied.

This one, Tennessee, closed with a 26-11 run. Senior Jordan McRae scored the final 13 points for the Vols.

Good thing, that. A fair portion of the Tennessee fan base is impatient with Martin. His first two teams fell short of the NCAA tournament and this one is on tenuous ground.

But in comparison to Anderson, Martin comes away the clear winner.

Anderson — who interviewed at UT in 2005 before the Vols hired Pearl — is 49-33 overall at Arkansas, 17-22 in SEC play.

He’s won a grand total of two SEC road games, both at Auburn. The Razorbacks didn’t even make the NIT the past two seasons and haven’t won an SEC tournament game since 2008.

Martin is 51-34 at Tennessee, including 24-14 in SEC play.

His teams have won eight SEC road games, including one at LSU earlier this month, and one SEC tournament game. The NIT is no one’s destination, but being invited (twice) is better than being snubbed.

Tennessee’s goal is not to get invited to the NIT this year. As in, “Thanks, but we’ve already got plans and they involve dancing.’’

Like Arkansas trying to protect a lead in a road game, the Vols still have considerable work to do. They still have to maintain an NCAA tournament-worthy balance sheet to the finish line.

Beating Arkansas at home didn’t clinch anything. It just meant the Vols took care of business and avoided a crushing loss.

“Arkansas,’’ said senior Jeronne Maymon, after a 17-point, nine-rebound evening, “speeds you up and makes you do things you don’t want to do.

“It was a good try by Arkansas.’’

Not quite good enough, though. It was a game Tennessee had to win and it did.

It was a game that also kept Martin a solid step ahead of Anderson.

© 2014 govolsxtra.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Comments » 13

wigmeister writes:

Who cares where he stands compared to Anderson. We only care about TN basketball, and he has not gotten it done here! We won because McRae is a baller! I didn't see anything spectacular that might have been started with the coaches on the bench!

atchleyaaron#1420833 writes:

Great game, one of the most entertaining of the year so far.

underthehill writes:

I consider the merit of a good coach to be the production he gets from the players he has..using that criteria for college coaches in Tennessee .. #1 Richy Byrd..Belmont #2 Stallings ..Vandy #3 Kermit Davis ..Middle Tn..Memphis obviously has the best overall talent in the state ..it would be interesting to see how any of the top 3 coaches would do with that talent..Martin vs Anderson..how about Martin vs and of the 3 I named..

johnlg00 writes:

One more step on a long, winding, hilly, slick path. Great, fair, or poor in whatever aspect of play one fancies, it is a win. If they do that a dozen or so more times, they are in the Dance.

Plasticman85 writes:

in response to johnlg00:

One more step on a long, winding, hilly, slick path. Great, fair, or poor in whatever aspect of play one fancies, it is a win. If they do that a dozen or so more times, they are in the Dance.

A "dozen" more wins? Don't think that's going to happen but 10 more wins should be enough to get them in.

RoadTrip writes:

in response to Plasticman85:

A "dozen" more wins? Don't think that's going to happen but 10 more wins should be enough to get them in.

Not if they are not against good RPI teams. They need a quality win or two such as UF and Mizzou.

johndavid writes:

20 wins and they're in - mark it down!

I don't know if we win 20 though?

fannotsheep writes:

Twenty wins is no guarantee. The SEC is perceived as way down since KY is not as good as most thought they would be. Tennessee needs to win some games they are not supposed to -- and win every game they are supposed to -- or they will likely be NIT bound again.

Strange likes Martin I'm sure, but he fails to point out that after this year the talent drops off abruptly. Who knows if Hubbs will ever live up to his hype if and when he gets healthy? Stokes is almost definitely a pro next year, etc. Nobody is excited about the incoming class. And you have to wonder, "If not now, when? If this team doesn't dance, how many more years must we wait?"

Plasticman85 writes:

in response to johndavid:

20 wins and they're in - mark it down!

I don't know if we win 20 though?

You're setting yourself up for a huge letdown if you think we get in at 20-11. That means we go 11-7 in the SEC and that some losses will have to come against teams with RPI's in the 100's. This will not build a resume worthy of a bid. 21-10 might get in, however, I think it will take 22-9 minimum to get a bid. Otherwise, we will be hosting another first round NIT game.

johnlg00 writes:

in response to Plasticman85:

A "dozen" more wins? Don't think that's going to happen but 10 more wins should be enough to get them in.

As cynical as I am these days of anything to do with the NCAA, and seeing how close the Vols have presumably come to being picked before, they have to finish no worse than third in the SEC. That may take 14-4. That may not even be enough if the two remaining losses were to Florida and/or Mizzou. If the Vols can, say, beat Florida and Mizzou at their places, they could possibly get in with as low as a 12-6 finish IF they don't lose any more home games.

I think I am probably one of the most optimistic posters on here in terms of the Vols' POTENTIAL. I have seen signs of growth as a coach in Martin. The players have shown in stretches that they can play with anybody. However, the one thing that keeps anybody from believing in them totally is that nagging feeling that they just don't know how to win! Because of their earlier stumbles, they have an exceedingly narrow, difficult path to negotiate. I hope they can make it. They are good enough, but are they strong enough?

johnlg00 writes:

in response to fannotsheep:

Twenty wins is no guarantee. The SEC is perceived as way down since KY is not as good as most thought they would be. Tennessee needs to win some games they are not supposed to -- and win every game they are supposed to -- or they will likely be NIT bound again.

Strange likes Martin I'm sure, but he fails to point out that after this year the talent drops off abruptly. Who knows if Hubbs will ever live up to his hype if and when he gets healthy? Stokes is almost definitely a pro next year, etc. Nobody is excited about the incoming class. And you have to wonder, "If not now, when? If this team doesn't dance, how many more years must we wait?"

Agree completely with your first paragraph. Talent going forward is of course one of the other nagging feelings some have about the program.

I get where those are coming from, but look at it like this. It is not assured that Stokes won't be back. Last I heard, he is not projected in the first round and this year's draft is supposed to be uncommonly deep. Now, if he goes on real tear--20+ppg/10+rpg--on the hottest team in the league, especially if he continues to show better moves, shooting range, and consistency of effort, he could rise dramatically on the draft boards and would be well-advised to leave school. If he has a couple of stinkers in big games, especially if he lets himself get frustrated and checks out emotionally, he might be better advised to stay another year. He could still use more polish in several areas.

Second, next year's squad won't be quite as helpless as some might think, even if Jarnell does move on. True, except for Ndiaye, there will be no true post on the team. However, lots of pretty good teams do without traditional post players these days.

I believe an SEC-quality lineup can be put together out of Richardson, Thompson, Hubbs, Reese, Moore, Ndiaye, Chievous, and Davis. There are two big guys coming in who will no doubt get an early look and two backcourt prospects. One is a shooting guard who will probably not be needed unless he really emerges in preseason practice, but the other is a fairly-highly regarded PG who can back up Thompson.

If it were MY team, I would look to press and otherwise go as fast as we could manage. This will emphatically NOT, IMHO, be a good group to try to run a slow-down, ball-control system. If Martin tries that, they might be good enough to win more than half their games but they surely won't make the tournament. HOWEVER, if Martin's evolution as a coach continues, and he has the confidence and imagination to use these guys properly, and if everybody stays tuned in to the program, they could be pretty good.

atchleyaaron#1420833 writes:

in response to johnlg00:

Agree completely with your first paragraph. Talent going forward is of course one of the other nagging feelings some have about the program.

I get where those are coming from, but look at it like this. It is not assured that Stokes won't be back. Last I heard, he is not projected in the first round and this year's draft is supposed to be uncommonly deep. Now, if he goes on real tear--20+ppg/10+rpg--on the hottest team in the league, especially if he continues to show better moves, shooting range, and consistency of effort, he could rise dramatically on the draft boards and would be well-advised to leave school. If he has a couple of stinkers in big games, especially if he lets himself get frustrated and checks out emotionally, he might be better advised to stay another year. He could still use more polish in several areas.

Second, next year's squad won't be quite as helpless as some might think, even if Jarnell does move on. True, except for Ndiaye, there will be no true post on the team. However, lots of pretty good teams do without traditional post players these days.

I believe an SEC-quality lineup can be put together out of Richardson, Thompson, Hubbs, Reese, Moore, Ndiaye, Chievous, and Davis. There are two big guys coming in who will no doubt get an early look and two backcourt prospects. One is a shooting guard who will probably not be needed unless he really emerges in preseason practice, but the other is a fairly-highly regarded PG who can back up Thompson.

If it were MY team, I would look to press and otherwise go as fast as we could manage. This will emphatically NOT, IMHO, be a good group to try to run a slow-down, ball-control system. If Martin tries that, they might be good enough to win more than half their games but they surely won't make the tournament. HOWEVER, if Martin's evolution as a coach continues, and he has the confidence and imagination to use these guys properly, and if everybody stays tuned in to the program, they could be pretty good.

I agree, no one knows the future and how players will progess. If basketball was based just on the star system in recruiting, kentucky would never lose a game.

murrayvol writes:

in response to johndavid:

20 wins and they're in - mark it down!

I don't know if we win 20 though?

Sorry but 20 wins won't do it unless 2 of them are over Florida and I'm not even sure that would help. The SEC is bad and the committee knows it.

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