Wiedmer: Time for a petition to 'Keep Cuonzo'

Wiedmer: Time for a petition to 'Keep Cuonzo'

March 23rd, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin reacts in this 2014 file photo.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

What if the Tennessee men's basketball team beats Mercer today, then wins twice more to reach its first Final Four in program history?

What are those 36,069 sourpusses who signed an online petition -- and just how do you sign an online petition, anyway? -- to "Bring Back Bruce [Pearl]" going to do then?


Start a "We're sorry, Conz" petition?

Become Auburn fans now that Pearl's coaching the Tigers?

Despite being unfairly thrown into a play-in game by a biased Selection Committee, the Volunteers are putting together the kind of run that quite possibly could shock the entire college hoops world over the next 16 days, beginning this evening against the bracket-busting Bears.

It's not just that they've held their last seven opponents to an average of 52.7 points while averaging 72.7 points, the lone hiccup in that run an officials-aided loss to No. 1 Florida in the SEC tournament semifinals. Or that they're easily playing their best ball of Cuonzo Martin's three years as head coach when it matters most, though UT fans might want to strongly consider that moving forward. Or even that they actually seem to be getting better daily, if not hourly under their sport's brightest lights, torching a dangerous Iowa team by 13 points in Wednesday night's overtime win, then crushing UMass by 19 on Friday.

All that is hugely important and impressive. And now, 368 days later, they get a chance to exact revenge against Mercer for last season's lackluster NIT loss to the Bears inside Thompson-Boling Arena. With a Sweet 16 berth also on the line, with Jeronne Maymon (who didn't play in last year's game) back on the floor, it's hard to see the Vols not winning this one and returning to the NCAA tourney's second week for the first time since 2010.

But just in case all that isn't enough for any Big Orange doubter, return to Wednesday night in Dayton, to something Martin said to his team before the game and something they dutifully carried out to a man afterward.

Himself a cancer survivor, Martin instructed the Vols -- win or lose -- to tell Iowa coach Fran McCaffery how much they were praying for his 14-year-old son Patrick, who had a malignant tumor removed from his thyroid the morning of the game.

In the first moments following the Hawkeyes' final game of the year, McCaffery, who lost both his parents to cancer, singled out his gratitude to Martin and the UT players for their kind words.

It's not that Martin is the only coach in the country who would have instructed his players to say such things. But the fact that he did, and that they all reached out to an opposing coach, is another reason the Big Orange Nation should belatedly, as a unified force, embrace its coach rather than all but beg him to leave through a half-baked online petition.

This is not to say UT wins today, or beyond today. Mercer didn't beat Duke by accident. The Bears are old, experienced and savvy. They could be an Ivy League school, poised, precise and patient.

Yet in many ways, that's also the Vols under Martin. They are not always entirely entertaining to watch but have become brutally efficient down the stretch of all three of his UT seasons. In the last 10 regular-season games of his three years, including this one, Martin's Vols are 23-7.

Perhaps that's why Mercer coach Bob Hoffman said Saturday of the man he's about to face: "He's done an amazing job. They are playing at a very high level. They just look like a confident team."

There's also this from UMass player Sampson Carter after battling against Mr. Double-Double Jarnell Stokes: "You can tell he's been taught well."

It's been easy to criticize the Conz after the occasional head-scratching loss -- Texas A&M twice this season, Oakland and Austin Peay his first year, Georgia last year -- and say he's not what UT needs. But no one wins these days without talent and a strong point guard. Maymon sitting out all of last season with a bad knee denied Martin a chance to do what Stokes and Maymon have done so well down the stretch of this season, which is to become all but unstoppable.

And when the Vols and point guard Trae Golden were forced to part ways before this season, breaking in Antonio Barton took time. The reality is that if Maymon had been available last year or Golden returned this year, Martin's UT resume almost certainly would be more impressive.

It is true that the Big Orange could take a big dip next season if Stokes does the expected and turns pro. But even that seems less certain than it once did. In what promises to be a very deep draft, the website Draft Express has Stokes no better than the 20th pick of the second round and NBADraft.net doesn't project him to be chosen in either round.

Given his vastly improved consistency and shooting touch down the stretch of this winter, returning for a senior year would not only improve his stock but also make the Vols a reliable pick for next year's NCAA tourney.

The Big Orange Nation should also consider this: Tennessee also is about to be a Nike school, which should pay big recruiting dividends as early as this summer, since most of the best AAU teams tend to be sponsored by the shoe and apparel giant.

But all that's down the road, after this season ends, whenever that takes place.

Before then, UT athletic director Dave Hart might be wise to extend Cuonzo's contract rather than paying another coach not to coach. To delay such a decision might also allow some other school to decide that Martin's 112-61 record over his past five seasons at Missouri State and UT is good enough for them if not the Vols.

And as the Big Orange football program has painfully proven over the past few years, the last thing UT basketball needs is a third coach in five years.

So what do you say, Volniacs? There are surely a few of you somewhere willing to start an online petition to Keep Cuonzo. Otherwise, those drives to Auburn to watch Pearl coach the Tigers could get pretty old pretty quick.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com