Wiedmer: Fancher believes Vols can reach Final Four

Wiedmer: Fancher believes Vols can reach Final Four

March 27th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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INDIANAPOLIS - When you've reached zero Final Fours and but one Elite Eight in the 104 years you've fielded a men's basketball team, there are a lot painful moments.

But it's hard to imagine any University of Tennessee basketball fan finding a more dispiriting or divisive four-day stretch in the program's history than March 18-21, 2011, which was also the last time the Vols faced Michigan prior to Friday night's Sweet 16 showdown.

In case you've successfully blocked those 96 hours from your memory, UT went from a 33-29 halftime deficit against the Wolverines that Friday in the opening round of the NCAA tourney in Charlotte to a 75-45 defeat. Three days later, the school fired Bruce Pearl over NCAA rules violations despite him taking the Big Orange to six NCAA tournaments in six seasons on the job.

Almost every UT fan can quickly tell you the Vols missed March Madness the next two years as Pearl's replacement, Cuonzo Martin, sought to rebuild the program.

But only one coach can tell you what it was like to coach through that defeat, then stick around to assist Martin in any way possible.

"That Michigan game was a bad recipe going in," said Houston Fancher, the former Appalachian State coach who worked two years under Pearl, then two more under Martin before joining former UT coach Buzz Peterson at UNC-Wilmington this past season, which also proved to be Peterson's last at UNCW before he was fired a couple of weeks ago.

"There was such a cloud hanging over us going into the tournament. The team wasn't nearly as focused and cohesive as it needed to be to face a team as talented and well-coached as Michigan."

Three years later, Fancher believes the Vols are much better equipped to deal with these worrisome Wolverines and John Beilein, their marvelous coach.

"I'm not saying they'll win," he said of the Vols on Wednesday, "but Cuonzo has them playing as well as anybody in the tournament right now and they may be defending better than anybody. They've definitely got a shot to reach (the Final Four)."

But why now? Or more accurately, why not until now? Why did it take Martin three seasons to get UT back into the NCAA Tournament it had reached for six straight seasons before he arrived?

"Jeronne Maymon," Fancher instantly replied, referring to the burlier half of the "Bruise Brothers" duo of Maymon and Jarnell Stokes. "They could have had this team last year if Jeronne had been healthy. When you double-teamed Jarnell last season, there were times you could shut them down. Now you double-team Stokes and Maymon kills you on the other side of the basket."

Maymon's basketball skills, though growing stronger by the day as his left knee returns to full-strength, aren't the only reason Fancher singled out the fifth-year senior, however.

"Jeronne's their unquestioned leader," Fancher said. "He's a big brother to everybody. He's like E.F. Hutton -- when he talks, everybody listens."

This is not to suggest he doesn't give huge credit to Martin for this Sweet 16 run after being stuck in the NIT the past two Marches.

"Just look at how much better these guys have gotten," he said. "Josh Richardson is a bonafide high-major player now. Anyone who watched Jordan McRae as freshman would have sworn he wouldn't make it at UT. But look at them now. Josh is playing as well as anyone in the tournament, and Jordan's a threat to get 30 points every time he walks on the court. That's because Cuonzo has never given up on these guys, has never changed his approach, has never panicked. He's the same coach and person he is today that he's always been. And that consistency may be his greatest strength."

Yet were Fancher to get another shot at being a head coach -- he ran the Mountaineers program for nine years -- he would incorporate wisdom gleaned from Beilein, Pearl and Martin.

"Early in my career at Appalachian we played Richmond when Beilein was still coaching there," Fancher said. "They destroyed us. After the season, my assistants and I decided we'd run that offense. I was on the phone with Beilein for hours. The next season we were second in the nation in scoring and I got SoCon coach of the year."

One of his best memories of Pearl was the Vols' Sweet 16 win over Ohio State the year before everything unraveled.

"Most coaches will watch film for hours then come up with four or five things to try to combat what the other team does," Fancher said. "With Bruce, he'd watch 10 minutes on Ohio State, stop the tape, then draw up 15 plays we could run to beat that particular offense or defense. Then he'd watch 10 more minutes and draw up 15 more plays. If you played us when Bruce was here, I promise you the first six or seven plays we'd run in a game you'd never seen before because he drew them up for that game only."

But if Fancher marveled at Pearl's offense, he was no less impressed by Martin's defense and toughness.

"There were days with Cuonzo where we never even ran offense, just like there were days with Bruce when we never ran defense," he said. "But from Day One with Cuonzo, you knew what was expected and it never changed. Some of those early practices were borderline criminal they were so tough. There were days you never touched a basketball. But it developed the mentality he wanted, that nothing was going to be given to you, that you had to earn it every day. And no excuses."

Befitting one of game's best people, Fancher couldn't wait to put the all the pressure on UT men's basketball sports information director Tom Satkowiak and trainer Chad Newman for the Vols' ability to reach the Final Four next week in Dallas.

"If the trainer and SID don't screw it up, I'm pretty sure they can get there," he laughed.

But just in case Beilein's system again carries the day, Fancher believes it won't come anywhere close to 2011's 30-point embarrassment.

"If 'Zo has to go out there and guard those guys himself," he said, "there's no way he'd allow that to happen again."

Thank goodness. Because when it comes to March 18. 2011, once was more than enough for Volniacs everywhere.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com