JOHNSON CITY — Of the lessons a head coach learns in his first season in a major conference, Tennessee men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was simply puzzled by the lack of respect for the Southeastern Conference.
The league which produced the eventual national champion in Kentucky received just four NCAA tournament bids. The Vols, who fought to a strong finish in conference play after a bumpy start, were firmly on the bubble — but settled for an NIT appearance.
Despite the fact his team didn’t get into the dance, Martin is one of many league coaches who feel the SEC got shortchanged. But times are changing. And with the addition of strong hoops programs in Missouri and Texas A&M, the respect for SEC basketball should increase.
“The one thing that puzzles me is with so many talented teams, you only get four teams in the NCAA tournament,” Martin said Tuesday during an appearance at the Vols Caravan at Muncey United Methodist Church. “I think, as a league, we should get more. And, hopefully, we’ll get that with the progression of the league and with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M. I think they’re two really good programs. I think its great for the league, especially from a basketball standpoint, to get help get more teams into the NCAA tournament.” Year two of the Martin era is off to a fast start in the offseason with personal appearances and recruiting. Today, the coach is better acquainted to both his program and the SEC in general as he looks to build off a first season that produced better results than many expected following the rocky exit of previous coach Bruce Pearl.
The Vols played grittier and tougher over the course of the year, particularly following the addition of five-star Jarnell Stokes and Martin, through recruiting, is slowly building his roster around the type of players that will fit his system and has an outlook for the program going forward that he feels gives Tennessee basketball the best chance of being successful.
“From a point guard standpoint, we like quick guys,” Martin said. “Tough, defensive minded guys who can really put pressure on the ball defensively. Outside of that we want athletic guys with length that can do multiple things on the perimeter. I like to have a guy on the perimeter that can play three or four positions. When you switch into different schemes, guys can do a lot of different things.
When you can do that you have a chance to be very successful as a team.”
Another key element is strength on the court. Facing a program like Kentucky, which is an annual draw for the nation’s top one-anddone players, on an annual basis, the Volunteers have to adapt in different ways and Martin’s weight vest program is one small way to improve the product on the court.
“Anything you can do to make them as tough as possible,” Martin said. “I don’t do that for sound bites or anything that will advance me as a coach. It’s not like a 60-pound weight vest. It’s a 10-pound weight vest they’re putting on a guy. What happens is they become better players.
“If you’re able to work with a 10, 15-pound weight vest on a consistent basis everyday, you’ll get better at some point. Plus the stuff we do is all skill stuff. It’s not like we’re shooting three-pointers with a vest on. You don’t want to effect a guy’s jumpshot.”
Martin hopes the strength and offseason workouts the players are enduring continues to pay off this summer with a visit to Italy, where the Volunteers will play a series of exhibition games against professional clubs. “I think another atmosphere (helps),” Martin added. “I remember when I went back when I was with (former Purdue) Coach (Gene) Keady as a player and also as an assistant coach. Coach Keady more less let the players do the coaching so to speak.
Really there’s not a lot of coaching your doing. You’re not utilizing a lot of different schemes. We’ll utilize our motion offense completely, then we’ll let the players play from there.”
Along with Stokes, the Vols will return experienced players in Jeronne Maymon, Trae Goldon, Jordan McRae, Skylar McBee and Kenny Hall to challenge in a tough eastern division. The Volunteers’ schedule will be released this summer and the squad will maintain a grid of top name opponents. Tennessee will face a Big Ten opponent (rumored to be Michigan State, Indiana or Michigan) at home in a CBS game and host Memphis and ETSU, while facing a Big East opponent on the road in the SEC-Big East Challenge on top of a tournament.
Wes Holtsclaw is a sportswriter for the Elizabethton Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org