By David Climer
Nashville Tennesseean columnist
NASHVILLE — For the record, the NCAA insists this is a first-round game, not a play-in game.
With that in mind, it’s official: In a bracket-or-bust season, Cuonzo Martin coached his Tennessee Vols into the NCAA Tournament.
But is that good enough for Martin to keep his job?
I’ll have to get back to you on that. The man behind the curtain, UT athletics director Dave Hart, isn’t showing his hand.
If it were my call, just making the field of 68 and facing Iowa to earn a No. 11 regional seed doesn’t cut it. Given that this is Martin’s third year on the job and two of his best players are left over from his predecessor’s regime, the burden of proof is on him. I believe he should have to win two games in the tournament in order to return as Vols coach.
Is that fair? Maybe not. But with the money that’s being thrown around in college basketball these days, little is fair.
There is precedent for firing a coach after he took the Vols to the NCAAs. It happened to Don DeVoe in 1989. Jerry Green went to four straight NCAAs but alienated the fan base to the point that he was fired after a particularly ugly first-round loss to Charlotte in 2001. And of course, Bruce Pearl’s 30-point blowout by Michigan in 2011 was his final game as Vols coach.
Hart showed his concern about the direction of the program last spring when he declined to extend Martin’s contract beyond 2016. A month ago, Hart noted that the success or failure of a coach is determined by his team’s performance in tournament basketball. He quickly injected that when he referred to tournament basketball, he meant the NCAA and not the NIT.
The fact that this team needed to win five of its last six games in order to make the NCAAs is a mark against Martin. The Vols underachieved for the better part of four months before finally gaining traction.
It is a continuation of a trend on Martin’s watch. For whatever reason, his three UT teams have played their best basketball at the end of the regular season. In his first two years, the Vols won eight of their last nine but failed to make the NCAA field either time. In its final three regular-season games, this year’s team beat Vanderbilt, Auburn and Missouri by a combined 93 points.
What took the Vols so long to get up and running? Martin said part of it was due to breaking in new players at point guard – senior Antonio Barton, a transfer from Memphis, and Darius Thompson, a freshman from Murfreesboro. UT also had trouble closing out games earlier in the season.
After losing for the second time this season to Texas A&M on Feb. 22, the Vols were 16-11 overall and 7-7 in the SEC. They were an NIT team waiting to happen. Then came a strong run where UT overwhelmed five straight opponents. Granted, the competition was weak – Missouri was the only one of those five that finished at .500 in the SEC – but it was impressive nonetheless.
During a 5 ½-game stretch, the Vols played their best basketball of the season. Unfortunately for UT, that ended at halftime of the SEC Tournament semifinal against Florida on Saturday. The Vols quickly squandered a seven-point halftime lead and scored only 14 second-half points in a 56-49 loss.
That game reflected the pluses and minuses of these Vols. They were good enough to lead the nation’s No. 1 team by 10 points in the first half but bad enough to go in the tank when Florida turned up its defensive intensity.
Now the Vols have the opportunity for a fresh start in the NCAA Tournament.
And Cuonzo Martin has a chance to state his case.
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball