Wiedmer: Martin is making Vols better

Wiedmer: Martin is making Vols better

April 13th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

KNOXVILLE - The workout could leave the Energizer Bunny gasping for an I.V. and an oxygen mask.

For 30 minutes straight, Tennessee men's basketball players run around the Pratt Pavilion practice court shooting jumper after jumper while occasionally being shoved in the torso by an assistant coach wielding a giant, flat cushion.

There are no water breaks, no referee's whistle, almost no pauses in play. For 30 minutes. And did we mention there are no water breaks?

"It's the closest thing I've seen to a pro workout, especially the intensity," said former Vol Wayne Chism, who has been encouraged to join the drills by new UT coach Cuonzo Martin.

"It's definitely going to make them better."

Two weeks does not a program make. Especially when it's replacing one that looked so much better from the outside than within these past six years under former coach Bruce Pearl.

After all, Martin can't improve on Pearl's six NCAA tournament appearances in six years. He might be hard-pressed to duplicate Pearl's three Sweet 16 runs in his first five years or his landmark Elite Eight run one year before he was run out of town for NCAA violations.

But something rising sophomore Tobias Harris said about these workouts - especially if the gifted Harris eventually shuns NBA green to become a sophomore - shouldn't be ignored when evaluating Martin's first 15 days of employment.

Said Harris: "He's pushing me not only in these workouts, but as a person, too."

As a person, too. Those words weren't often heard from the UT hoops men the past two years.

They'd rave about Pearl the tactician, Pearl the motivator, Pearl the innovator. Yes, he could beat No. 1 Kansas with four key players suspended. But why was he forced to win that way? Why were those four players driving around Knoxville at high noon on New Year's Day toting guns and alcohol and drugs? Because Bruce Almighty was pushing them to be better people?

To watch Martin and his assistants work with persistence and precision is watch a staff devoid of nonsense. This is the Purdue way, the Gene Keady way, which is to somewhat say the Marine Drill Sergeant way.

And while he never exactly said it, perhaps that's why UT athletic director Mike Hamilton snapped up Martin from Missouri State before Missouri or North Carolina State or Georgia Tech or UNLV moved in.

Because while he could never openly criticize Pearl's questionable discipline - since Pearl remains Hamilton's best hire - deep down he knew the Vols needed a major course correction.

Just as important, Martin understands such 180-degree turns take time.

"I don't think we'll use all 13 scholarships [next year]," he said. "I don't want to sign someone for one year, then have them be unhappy when we recruit over them the following year. We're already evaluating the next recruiting class. We're already looking at 2012, 2013, 2014."

Martin also said of the change of recruiting from Missouri State to Tennessee: "There's a different reception [in the home] - different level of basketball. But it's still about hard work, building relationships."

Building relationships is usually most difficult with the players left behind.

So it came as a slight surprise to hear rising sophomore Jordan McRae, generally regarded this past season as having some allergic reaction to defense, say of next week's defensive workouts: "I'm not looking forward to it. But I know I'm long and athletic and can do a lot to help the team by being a better defender."

Still, it was what former player Chism - long Pearl's favorite - said that impresses the most.

Having spent the past season playing both overseas in Turkey and in the NBA's developmental league, Chism wasn't around Knoxville when Pearl was let go.

Yet he found Martin welcoming him with open arms when he returned to campus a few days ago.

"Some [new] coaches don't let the older guys work out," Chism said. "But he opened that door. That meant a lot to me. Coach Martin and his staff are a bunch of really good guys."

But what about the old coach, his coach, the man who often called Chism "like my own sons"? What have those conversations been like of late?

"I haven't talked to him," Chism said in a softer voice.

Day after day, in so many ways, Martin replacing Pearl seems a change for the better.