Wiedmer: Martin's Tennessee Vols 'much better' than Oakland saw last year

Wiedmer: Martin's Tennessee Vols 'much better' than Oakland saw last year

November 27th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee Vols coach Cuonzo Martin

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe scanned the stats late Monday evening. His Grizzlies had just shot 28.6 percent from the floor against Tennessee in a 77-50 defeat. From the 3-point line it had been more than twice that bad (12.5 percent).

But even those numbers were far superior to the opening half, when the Volunteers held Kampe's bunch to just 15.6 percent from the floor (9.1 percent from Treysville) to crawl into a 38-15 hole.

"They defended the living [expletive] out of us," Kampe said. "They played their tails off. They're much better than last year's team. Much better."

Welcome to Year Two of the Cuonzo Martin Era.

If it's true that most players make the biggest improvement from their freshman to sophomore seasons, it's also often true of teams under coaches.

Rick Pitino's first Kentucky team went 14-14. His second finished 22-6. Bruce Pearl's first UT team reached the second round of the NCAA tourney. His second came within a basket of the Elite Eight.

Then there are Cuonzo's Commandos, arguably the roughest, toughest basketball team we've seen since Detroit's Bad Boy Pistons ruled the NBA at the close of the 1980s.

The Vols improved to 4-1 for the season heading into Friday night's game against Georgetown at Washington's Verizon Center. Five games into last season UT stood 3-2 before falling to 3-6.

"Very physical," said Oakland junior guard Travis Bader, who scored 18 points but hit just 5 of 14 field-goal tries. "Their defense was very good. Very hard to get an open look. I'd say they guard you every bit as tough as Michigan State. They could definitely be an NCAA tournament team."

For the record, MSU beat Oakland 70-52 last Friday night. The Golden Grizzlies trailed by four with a little more than five minutes to play. The Spartans closed on a 12-0 run to make it appear to be an easy night at the office.

"I think State and Pittsburgh (which beat Oakland in overtime) and Tennessee are all pretty similar," Kampe said. "They all defend; they all play hard. But Pitt and State don't have the scoring potential of this team. Tennessee can score in the halfcourt. They've got guys who can shoot."

The Vols shot it pretty well against an Oakland team playing its sixth game in 16 days. They hit 53 percent from the floor (28 of 53) and knocked down 15 of 20 free throws. They were less impressive from afar, hitting 6 of 22 3-pointers (27 percent).

But that's not what defines the Commandos. It's defense and rebounding. Always defense and rebounding.

"Just how hard they play," Kampe said. "They beat the heck out of us. "They made a statement tonight for us. And we took it."

It had been the Grizzlies making the statement the last two years. Undefeated and ranked seventh in the country two years ago, Pearl's final UT team came unglued in the second half against Oakland and fell 89-82.

Then Martin's first team lost at Oakland last season after failing to shake off the jet lag of having played in Hawaii a few days earlier.

But there would be no doubt this time. The Vols led 25-9 after 11 minutes. The Grizzlies never drew closer than 19 in the final half.

"It's hard to find anything wrong other than a couple of offensive rebounds we gave up in the first half," Martin said. "When you compete like that, you always give yourself a chance."

But do they have a chance against Georgetown, ranked 20th in the newest Associated Press poll with one loss, in overtime to top-ranked Indiana?

"You're supposed to be one of the best," Martin said of the Hoyas. "Let's go and see."

He said that without arrogance or antagonism. The games are all the same to him, no opponent more or less important than the next one.

"Your prep work is always the same," Martin said. "Anybody can beat you. Cal Poly won against UCLA last night."

So Cuonzo's Commandos storm on, Georgetown the next team in their path.

Which brings us back to that defense against Oakland, especially in the opening half.

"We've guarded like that in practice before," said UT junior point guard Trae Golden, who scored 18 points and handed out seven assists. "But never in a game."

But when your prep work is always the same, UT opponents shouldn't be surprised to see such defense again and again the rest of this season.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com