Wiedmer: Cuonzo Martin challenger to John Calipari

Wiedmer: Cuonzo Martin challenger to John Calipari

February 24th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

So whom do you like for Southeastern Conference men's basketball coach of the year - Kentucky's John Calipari or Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin?

Do you believe it's more impressive to wildly overachieve - as the Volunteers have done (at least in SEC play) under Martin? Or is it better to match the oversized expectations almost always heaped upon Big Blue, as Cal's Cats have in hanging onto No. 1 for five straight weeks?

With three games remaining in the regular season, the very fact that Martin is in the conversation less than 12 months on the job may tip the award in his favor when the Rupp Cup, Associated Press and SEC (as voted by the coaches) all reveal their winners next month.

After all, everybody likes an underdog. And you can't play to that role much better than reaching a tie for fourth in the current league standings after being picked 11th by the media in the preseason poll.

In fact, should Vanderbilt lose at Kentucky this weekend and UT win out, the Vols would tie the Commodores for third in the final standings. Talk about Cuonz-founding the experts.

This isn't to take anything away from Calipari. He may have his best team ever, and that's saying something for a man who's guided three different schools to the Final Four, even if his first two trips - with UMass in 1996 and Memphis in 2008 - were later vacated for NCAA violations.

In fact, Calipari may deserve bonus points for the way he's handled the NCAA officially erasing those first two trips.

Having turned 53 a couple of weeks ago, Cal joked that he was really just 51. "They took two years away," he mused.

Moreover, he's built his latest freshman-dominated team around defense. And anybody who follows college hoops knows that freshmen and rock-ribbed defense usually go together like Tim Tebow and Madonna, sauerkraut and ice cream, Rosanne Barr and the national anthem.

Most high-profile freshmen would rather listen to Pat Boone on their iPods than get close enough to their opponents to know what flavor of gum they're chewing. Yet despite starting three rookies, UK has spent most of the year leading the league in field-goal-percentage defense and points allowed.

Then again, when you started the season at No. 2 nationally, moving up one spot in the polls isn't quite as eye-popping as what the Vols have achieved under Martin the past four months.

Or have you forgotten that the same UT team that's swept Florida - the SEC's second-best team to date - lost in December to an Austin Peay team that entered Thompson-Boling Arena with a 1-9 record?

So what do coaches think of the Vols now that they stand 15-13 overall and 7-6 in the league heading into Saturday's game at South Carolina?

"They defended us better than we defended them," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after being swept by Cuonzo's Commandos. "We could never get the lane against them, and they got down the lane against us all afternoon."

Said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy on Wednesday after watching the Vols rally from a 13-point hole to win by 13: "They just dominated us from block to block. Anything they wanted to do."

This sounds vaguely like a certain Top Five team at the moment, a team that routinely reaches the Final Four. It sounds like Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans.

No team is physically or mentally tougher than Sparty, which Izzo has guided to six Final Fours and one national championship in 17 years.

Martin may not yet have that resume, but his Vols have that rugged demeanor, and the fact that their only home league loss came by three tough points to UK underscores that intensity. Beyond that, seemingly all of Martin's players have gotten better since the season began, and when did anyone ever say that about predecessor Bruce Pearl?

But this may be the best reason to select Martin as the SEC's coach of the year - especially if he finishes in the top four to earn a first-round conference tourney bye:

Said fifth-year senior Cam Tatum of his first-year coach: "I'd run through a wall for that man."

What voter wouldn't be swayed by words such as those?