Martin's Vols way ahead of last year

Martin's Vols way ahead of last year

October 12th, 2012 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Tennessee Vols coach Cuonzo Martin

Photo by Jake Daniels /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Cuonzo Martin held up his black-cased iPhone like he was taking a picture of the crowd assembled for his media day news conference.

"Before I get started, guys, let me tweet this picture here right quick," Tennessee's basketball coach deadpanned.

Clearly Martin has settled into his position, his surroundings and his program.

He likes what he's seen and what he has, too.

"I like where we're headed as a program," he said Thursday afternoon shortly after those in Pratt Pavilion's Chris Lofton Room stopped laughing at his opening joke. "I like what our guys are doing."

Entering his second year, which begins with today's first practice, Martin actually knows what his guys can do. The players know him and his staff and understand the expectations. The Volunteers found their identity during Southeastern Conference play in Martin's inaugural year, but their late run to the league's second seed ended in the SEC tournament quarterfinals and an NIT berth.

On the night of Selection Sunday last March, the Vols pledged that particular tournament would be a one-time postseason destination.

"It's always the goal," said senior forward Kenny Hall. "[The coaches] don't have to remind us. We all have that in the back of our minds. We talk about that all the time."

After flipping the script to their season, the Vols fell short of a trip they'd made the previous six seasons under coach Bruce Pearl. In Martin's first season replacing the popular Pearl, he hardly had any tape of his team to evaluate. The core of his team played sparingly in Pearl's final season.

"This point last year, there wasn't really much to think," junior wing Jordan McRae said. "You didn't know what to expect. Nobody really played that much the year before.

"This year, it's more everybody knowing now what to expect from Coach Martin and the other players."

Through the way he turned his first team around and landing five-star recruits Jarnell Stokes last December and Robert Hubbs last month, Martin has endeared himself to fans who probably were unsure of how to pronounce his first name this time last season.

The 41-year-old said later Thursday that the change from his first year to his second at Tennessee isn't much different than it was at Missouri State, and having the core of his team back might be more important than just the year of familiarity.

"It helps when you have a year under your belt and you have good pieces returning," Martin said. "Guys understand the system, the blueprint of what you're trying to do as a program. You have to get it done on the floor."

Martin and his players were confident in their collective ability to do it. The trio of point guard Trae Golden and bruising post players Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes comprise the foundation. Other players' roles mostly are defined already, a process that took half of Martin's first year.

"It's just a lot easier coming into not a whole new program, whole new coach," sophomore wing Josh Richardson said. "Just the familiarity of what he wants and what he wants us to do and how we know we have to play, it just helps a lot going into it. We're going to play a lot more within ourselves this year knowing what the structure is and knowing we're a hard-nosed defensive team."

Tennessee discovered that last season and built upon it with a busy and productive summer. Stokes played for the gold-medal winning United States' U19 team at the FIBA Americas Championships. Richardson played an exhibition tour in Poland and Germany with Athletes in Action.

NCAA rules allowed more summer on-court interaction between coaches and players. The team took a four-game exhibition trip to Italy in August and practiced for a couple of weeks leading up to that trip. There were more voluntary workout and gym sessions amid the traveling.

Martin credited new strength coach Nicodemus Christopher in helping his players develop physically during the offseason.

"We put in so much work throughout the summer and the preseason," Hall said. "The thing that really got me extra confident is when I come here thinking no one else is in the gym just to put in extra work, I see four, sometimes five other guys in here doing the same thing. That right there lets me know that everybody is tuned in and everybody's focused and everybody's ready to come out here and have a great year."

According to Martin, Golden will need to be good for Tennessee to be good. The coach always has been demanding of his junior point guard, who he said must lead the offense as a scorer and distributor and cut down on the "inexcusable" turnovers that plagued the Vols last winter. Golden led Tennessee in scoring (13.6 points per game) and minutes and finished fourth in the SEC with 4.5 assists per game in Martin's first season.

"When Trae is playing well," Martin said, "we are playing well as a team."

The schedule, again, is loaded. After the Nov. 9 opener against Kennesaw State, the Vols play in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament in a field that includes UNC-Asheville, Oklahoma State, Akron, Providence, Massachusetts, Penn State and North Carolina State. In addition to a tough slate in the new 14-team SEC, Oakland, Wichita State, Xavier and Memphis all visit Knoxville, and Tennessee visits Georgetown and Virginia.

"If we go out there and take care of our business early on in the season," Maymon said, "everything else should take care of itself."

Everything includes a berth to the NCAA tournament.

"What you try to do is put yourself in a position to make the NCAA tournament," Martin said. "You can't go from the NIT and say, 'Oh, we're a Final Four team.' You've got to make the NCAA tournament and work from there.

"I think we have the pieces."