Wiedmer: UT's Martin a blessing for Vols baskeball

Wiedmer: UT's Martin a blessing for Vols baskeball

November 24th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Thanksgiving is the day to recognize big blessings. Family. Friends. Health. Your job - if you're lucky enough to still have one. Our good fortune to live in this great nation, whatever its struggles at the moment.

So however much we may love our sports, especially here in the South, the success of our favorite athletic teams - assuming your team's winning more than it's losing this year - should never be confused with more important blessings.

That said, is there a University of Tennessee basketball fan anywhere on this planet today who isn't thanking former athletic director Mike Hamilton for replacing Bruce Pearl with Cuonzo Martin last spring? And if some Volniac isn't, shouldn't he be?

The Vols are 3-2 this morning after Wednesday's victory over Chaminade in the Maui Classic.

That alone is nothing extraordinary. It's pretty much exactly where most folks thought they'd be at this juncture. But it's the defeats that have people talking and have the Big Orange Nation wondering just how far Martin can take this program. And how fast.

Put another way - Have any back-to-back losses in UT hoops history done more to excite the fan base than Monday's 10-point loss to Duke followed by Tuesday's 99-97 double-overtime heartbreaker to Memphis?

Talk about a loss-loss becoming a win-win.

After all, both the Dookies and Tigers are in the Top 10, both are expected to last at least until the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and both were expected to put a sizeable whuppin' on a UT program seemingly short on both experience and talent.

Instead, the Vols scrapped and clawed with Duke throughout, then completely erased a 16-point hole against Memphis to grab the lead in overtime before barely losing.

No wonder Martin told the media on Tueday evening, "It's tremendous for our program to find out where we are... and, man, we feel good about it."

How could you not? As it further adapts to Martin's physical style and relentless defense, UT is only going to get better, especially freshmen Josh Richardson and Yemi Makanjuola and sophomore guard Jordan McRae.

Sophomore point guard Trae Golden may already be the best floor general the Vols have seen since C.J. Watson ran the show for Pearl's first team. And then there's Jeronne Maymon, who turned in a double-double against Duke (14 points, 12 rebounds), then dropped 32 points and grabbed 20 rebounds against Memphis.

Beyond that, what about that nerveless triple that Richardson dropped on Memphis in overtime, a remarkable shot for anyone, but a confidence builder for a freshman on par with dating the head cheerleader.

Said Martin to the media afterward, that shot no doubt still in his head, "We as a coaching staff feel confident with what we have, but it was important for the guys to feel that way. When you play with confidence, anything can happen."

Anything. Such as Maymon - who averaged all of 2.6 points and 2.8 rebounds last season - turning in the kind of performances in Maui that should elevate him to All-SEC status this winter.

It was after the Vols' opening victory over UNC Greensboro nearly two weeks ago that Maymon - having totaled 15 points and four rebounds in a lopsided victory over the Spartans - said of his UT future: "My goal is to be the dirtiest player on the floor. Not the dirtiest in terms of getting technicals or playing outside the rules. But the dirtiest in terms of being the meanest, the toughest, the hardest worker."

With players such as that, anything can happen. With players such as that, a .500 record or better is no longer out of the question in the SEC. With players such as that, the hard-working, hard-driving Martin just might return the Vols to their seventh straight NCAA Tournament.

This isn't to say the Vols might not have returned there if Pearl had kept his job. Whatever many of us think of Coach Body Paint today, he basically built the Vols from nothing. And his success led to the massive renovation of Thompson-Boling Arena, a physical-plant improvement certain to benefit the Vols in both recruiting and fan comfort for decades to come.

But somewhere along the line, Pearl lost interest with the details - and the truth. The results became more important than the process, as UT football coach Derek Dooley might observe.

Perhaps that's why Maui tourney director Dave Odom - the former coach at both Wake Forest and South Carolina - told the media after the Memphis loss, "They have completely changed the perception of their team, earned a new measure of respect. They've showed the kind of toughness I'm sure Derek Dooley is trying to recapture in the Vols' football program."

You can thank Hamilton now or thank him later, but he richly deserves every thank you sent his way for turning to Martin when the time came to turn loose of Pearl.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com and 423-757-6273.