KNOXVILLE (AP) — When Cuonzo Martin accepted the Tennessee coaching job in the spring, he knew he only wanted players who were interested in working with him. So he gave the veteran Volunteers the choice to leave if they weren’t committed to playing for him.
Two signees left. So did Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson, who had their sights on the NBA draft even before former coach Bruce Pearl was fired. Everyone else stayed.
“I said to those guys when I took over the program, ‘You’re more than welcome to do what you need to do if you don’t feel happy about what we’re trying to do.’ I gave the same speech in June, I gave the same thing in July,” Martin said. “I think as a ballplayer, when you want to be successful, ‘Just give me the blueprint coach. I may not like doing it, but if that’s the blueprint for me to be successful as a young man, then I’m all for it.’”
While most of the offseason attention on Tennessee basketball was focused on NCAA violations committed by Pearl and his staff, Martin quietly has been working hard to put his own mark on the program. That means making the Vols’ tougher and more invested in the program with harder and faster offseason workouts.
After the 2010-11 season ended with the Vols’ 75-45 meltdown against Michigan in their first game of the NCAA tournament, senior guard Cameron Tatum thinks he and his teammates were ready for the extra intensity.
“I think that helped a lot of guys grow up,” Tatum said. “The way the season ended last year was something that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. With this fresh start and the way that coach Martin is bringing energy to the table and the want to get everyone on the team better, you can’t help but respect that.”
Martin’s toughness and intensity came as no surprise to his recruits, either. He was determined to recruit players who were defensive-minded and had already proven themselves to be hard workers in high school, and they’ve carried those attitudes onto Tennessee’s court.
“I figured coach Martin was that type of guy as far as being stern,” freshman point guard Wes Washpun said. “He never really made it all flash and frills. He was really like, ‘This is what it’s going to be. This is how it’s going to be. If you want to be here with me, then you can come. If not, then I don’t need you.’”
Washpun said one of the most difficult drills involved the players wearing 10-pound weight vests and having a teammate pull on them from behind and another push on them from the front as they dribbled a pair of basketballs down and back across the court.
Martin said the tough summer workouts have made the Vols more disciplined and given them more chemistry as a team. The coaches focused on developing the defense during the one-hour sessions they were allowed to hold with the players in August.
When practice formally begins on Friday, they’ll start working on the offense. Martin eventually wants to see Tennessee playing with the motion-style offense that helped Missouri State become the Missouri Valley Conference’s top scoring team in his second of three seasons there.
For now, Martin wants to see players start to compete for starting roles. He expects to have a rotation of eight or nine guys but is waiting to see who will shine among those players.
“I think the guys have really competed in practice. They’ve played hard. I think the adjustment now is we have to do a good job of battling against each other,” he said. “What I mean by that is we need to fight in practice amongst each other to kind of sort things out, to solidify the starting five. I don’t know that there’s been a five that’s really stood out.”