Cuonzo Martin on UT's 81-74 win over Arkansas
Tennessee and Arkansas have a connection that extends beyond a Mississippi River border.
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.