Wiedmer: Martin's hiring appears better for UT every day

Wiedmer: Martin's hiring appears better for UT every day

November 16th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sportscolumns

When his Tennessee men's basketball program was at its best, when the Volunteers were briefly ranked No. 1 for the only time in school history, former coach Bruce Pearl was only too happy to tell you what a fine coaching job he and his staff had done.

It may have been bragging, but it was also true -- especially once the game began. Pearl has few equals as a bench coach.

No less than Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt used to say, "I learn something from Bruce every day. He has some of the best out-of-bounds plays I've ever seen."

And had Bruce Almighty not inexplicably lied to the NCAA about minor violations, he no doubt would still be the Big Orange boss and the Vols almost certainly would be highly ranked and riding the coattails of forward Tobias Harris to another deep NCAA tournament run.

But Bruce isn't the coach, and because the gifted Harris was understandably concerned about the future of the program last spring following Pearl's ouster, he's no longer on the team, having opted to become a first-round NBA draft pick.

But what Pearl's successor said last Friday following his successful debut as UT's coach sent a most welcome message.

Said Cuonzo Martin following that 92-63 victory over UNC Greensboro: "I'd rather have a better player than a better play."

As the Vols welcome overmatched Louisiana-Monroe to Thompson-Boling Arena tonight, there is something profoundly refreshing about that attitude, something remarkably comforting in knowing the new Big Orange boss is focusing the attention on his players. All his players.

"He treats us like adults," said Jeronne Maymon, who so often seemed to be in Pearl's doghouse after transferring from Marquette in 2009. "You never see a change in Coach Martin's demeanor. He's always calm, always in control."

You can make too much of one game. Because Tennessee played calm and under control against a relative lightweight such as UNCG does not mean it will play the same way against Duke in Maui next week, or against such SEC heavyweights as Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.

Then again, that's what first attracted former UT athletic director Mike Hamilton to Martin when it became apparent last spring that Pearl's run was done.

Having seen the coach's Missouri State team barely lose to the Vols in Thompson-Boling early last season, Hamilton said of Martin on the day he was hired: "Cuonzo will win at the University of Tennessee. More than that, he's going to win the right way."

As if to underscore that, Martin said of his goals for those first months, "I'm more concerned right now with how they act. I want them to know it's important to do things the right way. Be on time. Go to class every day. The basketball will take care of itself."

And playing as they did against UNC Greensboro, it no doubt will, even if the SEC may yet humble this team this year.

But this quote from point guard Trae Golden to our newspaper Tuesday has been echoed by almost everyone on Martin's squad the past two or three weeks.

Said Golden: "I didn't feel like I played my game last year, and Coach Martin has really helped me in staying aggressive, staying confident and making sure I put my teammates in position to score as well as myself."

Again, it's only the beginning of a new era in UT hoops. Not every week will be as smooth as this past one.

But if they can avoid injuries, these Vols also can surprise enough folks to have a winning season no one thought possible six months ago.

"We're a mystery team," Maymon said, "because nobody's seen us play big minutes."

A mystery team maybe. But there's no mystery about their coach. Demanding his players do all things the right way, the basketball appears to be taking care of itself just fine.