Wiedmer: Vols' Martin can't catch a break

Wiedmer: Vols' Martin can't catch a break

February 24th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin shouts instructions to his team during an NCAA basketball game against Missouri in Columbia, Mo., in this Feb. 15, 2014, file photo.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Some college basketball coaches almost never seem to get a bad break. Duke's Mike Krzyzewski comes to mind, for instance. And, no, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim didn't just whisper that in my ear after the block/charge fiasco that sealed the Orange's road loss to Coach K's Dookies on Saturday night.

Then there's Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who can't seem to get anything but bad breaks. For proof, just consider Martin's Saturday, when he diagrammed a play in the final 2.6 seconds of regulation at Texas A&M that could have been the greatest coaching move of his three years in Knoxville.

Instead, it may go down as the worst moment of his Big Orange career because just after he signaled for a timeout to draw up that play, the Volunteers' Antonio Barton buried a 3-pointer that would have won the game.

Would have, that is, if Martin's timeout hadn't negated the basket. So even though the embattled coach drew up a play perfect enough to become a Jarnell Stokes dunk and force overtime, because Stokes missed the "and one" free throw that would have won the game in regulation and the Vols went on to lose to the Aggies in the extra period, the following criticisms of Martin appeared on UT message boards:

A) Probably the best collection of talent, 1-6 deep, Tennessee has ever had. Can you imagine Bruce Pearl coaching this kind of talent?

B) I swear that Cuonzo is Wade Houston in a different body.

C) It's time to stop the bleeding and rehire Bruce Pearl.

D) Cuonzo needs do what George Costanza did on "Seinfeld" when he realized he couldn't do anything right ... just do the opposite of whatever he thought he should do.

First of all, at least two-thirds of this year's Big Three -- Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon and Stokes -- weren't highly thought of by former coach Pearl, who rarely played McRae and Maymon and never seemed to be viewed in an especially kind light by those two after he left.

Beyond that, anyone who thinks this year's first six Vols are capable of staying on the same floor with the 1977 squad starting Bernard King, Ernie Grunfeld, Mike Jackson and Johnny Darden (with much bench help from Baylor School coach Austin Clark) has been spending too much time in Colorado smoking medicinal grass.

These guys couldn't carry Ernie's and Bernie's uniforms to the washing machine. If that 1976-77 Big Orange bunch played today, it could win the national title. Especially if the referees blew a tight whistle in the tournament, which might mean King would average 40 or more points.

Conversely, this UT team wouldn't be a lock to win the state college championship of Tennessee.

Yet while Cuonzo still hasn't reached his first NCAA tournament in his third season of employment, his 55-39 record to date is vastly superior to Houston's 65-90 mark in his five seasons in Knoxville.

This isn't to say that Martin has proven to be an especially good hire to this point. He has zero NCAA bids, and the prospects of changing that 20 days from today seems increasingly slim.

But even this loss shouldn't completely rule the Vols out nor deliver Martin a pink slip. The rules still state that the tournament selection committee has to pick 36 at-large teams, and to look across the national landscape is to struggle to find 36 teams necessarily more deserving than UT, despite its 7-7 league mark heading into Wednesday's road game at Mississippi State.

It's also tough to imagine an NCAA tourney field with only two Southeastern Conference teams, Florida and Kentucky, when there's talk of the Big Ten and Big 12 getting as many as seven each.

So what of UT's NCAA tourney chances? First, the Vols are out of free passes. They absolutely have to win three of their final four regular-season games against Mississippi State (road), Vanderbilt, Auburn (road) and Missouri. They might need to win all four.

And which teams might they be competing against for a bid beyond Mizzou, which laid its own egg at Alabama on Saturday night?

Try these three: West Virginia and Baylor of the Big 12 and Nebraska of the Big Ten.

The Mountaineers also are 7-7 in their league, but they've lost by double figures their last two outings to Texas and Baylor, they must still travel to Iowa State and Oklahoma and powerful Kansas comes to Morgantown to close out the regular season. Brutal stretch. Advantage to the Vols.

As for Baylor, the Bears are currently 6-8 in the Big 12 but must yet visit Texas and Kansas State and host Iowa State. Advantage to UT.

Nebraska. Currently 8-6 in the Big Ten, the Cornhuskers have a huge win at Michigan State, a win over Ohio State and road games remaining at disappointing Illinois and Indiana with a visit from surging Wisconsin still to come. Let Nebraska win two of its final four and one in the Big Ten tourney and it's tough to see UT making an argument to be in the field over the Huskers.

Of course, this is also how wacky this season has been: ESPN's latest RPI figures have Baylor 39th, Nebraska 50th and UT 57th. But RealTime RPI has Baylor 47th, Tennessee 48th and Nebraska 49th.

What all this means going forward is that the Vols probably need to find at least five more wins in the next 20 days to feel good about making the field and saving Martin's job.

But given his bad luck from Saturday on a play that should have elevated his coaching reputation within the Big Orange Nation, perhaps Martin really might want to take a page from Seinfeld's Costanza and do the opposite of whatever he wants to do. Odd as it sounds, it might have made the difference against the Aggies.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com