Heading into the regular-season finale, the Tennessee Volunteers are a long shot for the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Barring the team's first Southeastern Conference tournament title since high gass prices were measured in cents rather than dollars, it seems unlikely that Cuonzo Martin and the Vols will be invited even with a win today against Vanderbilt.
That we're even discussing the Vols and the postseason without waiting for the punch line is a testament to the job Martin has done in his first season in Knoxville. In fact, forget the SEC honors: If Martin somehow finds a way to get these Vols -- a collection of misfit pieces picked to finish 11th in the 12-team SEC before the season -- he deserves national coach of the year recognition.
But as good as Martin has been, would these Vols be better if Bruce Pearl had not been fired? Remember that before running crossways with and lying to the NCAA, Pearl reached a high-water mark with UT basketball, reaching six straight NCAA tournaments and coming within a basket of reaching the Final Four for the first time in program history.
It's a fair question -- Would the Vols be better with Pearl in his orange blazer rather than NCAA timeout? -- and there are several interesting angles since some of Pearl's leadership mistakes may have benefited Martin.
But before discussing that, let's look at the structure of the Vols if Pearl had stayed and if he could have talked Tobias Harris into staying one more season. The backcourt would have added Chris Jones (if he had qualified) and Kevin Ware. So for comparison sake, with Pearl's possible/projected starters on the left and The Conz's starter on the right:
PG Chris Jones -- Trae Golden
SG Jordan McRae -- Jordan McRae
SF Cam Tatum -- Cam Tatum
PF Tobias Harris -- Jarnell Stokes
C Jeronne Maymon -- Jeronne Maymon
Let's say the lineups are a push -- the current version of Golden is better than the immediate potential of Jones, and while Stokes is productive with a ton of potential, Harris would have been one of the top players in the SEC.
And it's doubtful Pearl would have landed Stokes. Martin made up a lot of ground on Stokes late in the recruiting process, and if Pearl had stayed it would have been doubtful he would have had an open scholarship for Stokes to join midyear.
Talent aside, Martin's management style bodes for well for future success and offers a higher ceiling than UT can ever remember. Even if he had survived the NCAA inquiries, Pearl was stressed and desperate in his final season in Knoxville, and that led him to be quite demanding on his players, especially reserves and role players.
He needed Scottie Hopson and the rest of the starters to deliver and be consistent so he had more touch with them, but a year ago it looked like any of the bench players were yanked for making the smallest of mistakes. That stunted the growth of Golden for sure and almost assuredly that of Kenny Hall, McRae and even Tatum.
Now Martin has been devoted to his players and unified a broken locker room (and the fact that he did it in less than six months is the biggest miracle of all). Players get pulled for not playing hard (as they should), but no one is looking over his shoulder at the scorer's table after missing a shot or making a turnover. Ergo, this bunch is playing aggressively and is not afraid to make a mistake. That culture change is arguably Martin's biggest success.
If Pearl had stayed -- and he had convinced Harris to return, and that's a big if -- this year's Vols would be better. They would have been a top-three pick in the SEC and would be around that with almost a certain lock on an NCAA bid.
That said, the future of the program would be cloudy. If Harris had come back it was only going to be for one more year, and in truth whether it was lying about a barbecue or whatever other NCAA violations or off-the-court distractions Pearl flirted with, he was facing a dwindling shot clock in Knoxville.
He was excellent on the floor and energized the sleeping giant that is UT basketball -- and for that every Johnny Vols Fan owes a tip of his or her UT hat to Pearl -- but Pearl burning out in Knoxville was a matter of when, not if.
And the timing worked out to the point that the Vols were able to land Martin. Now, the real question for Johnny Vols Fans everywhere: Are you ready to thank Mike Hamilton for finding him?
Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...
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