Martin keeps cool for hot-cold Vols
Posted: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 7:00 pm
By BETH RUCKER
AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — There’s not much Tennessee guard Cameron Tatum wouldn’t do for first-year Volunteers coach Cuonzo Martin.
When Tatum found himself in a six-game shooting slump he kept playing tough defense so Martin saw no reason to remove him from the starting lineup.
“I would run through a wall for that man,” Tatum said. “It’s just strong loyalty. You can’t go wrong with a guy like that.”
Martin’s even-keel attitude and consistent approach to discipline has all the Vols echoing Tatum’s sentiments. Behind the coach’s leadership, Tennessee (14-13, 6-6) has worked its way into a four-way tie for fourth in the Southeastern Conference after being picked at the beginning of the season to finish 11th in the league.
Though the Vols’ chances of making the NCAA tournament for a seventh straight season appear to be gone, they’re still happy with where Martin has taken them in his first season at Tennessee.
“Even if we were losing, I’d still do anything for coach Martin,” junior forward Jeronne Maymon said. “He gave us the right tools and the right mentality to trust him. I trust him, I believe in everything he’s saying. Regardless of if we’re winning or losing games, I still take heed to everything he says.”
Martin has given his players one overarching rule: play tough defense or remain on the bench. He’s backed that up by removing several players from the starting lineup at times this season, including point guard Trae Golden, the team’s leading scorer.
Martin also suspended forward Kenny Hall for conduct detrimental the team, even after praising the junior days earlier for being one of the toughest workers during practice. Hall, who was averaging more than 20 minutes a game, may not even return this season, Martin indicated.
“It’s whenever I decide to bring him back — if I bring him back this season,” he said.
The coach’s demeanor after Tennessee lost to a short-handed Alabama squad on Saturday was much different than his attitude after Tennessee upset Florida on the road on Feb. 11. He showed little excitement or disappointment, choosing instead to focus on what needed to improve for the next game.
But the Vols anticipated what he would say. They knew they hadn’t played defense well enough to please Martin.
“That’s the great thing about our guys. They understand it before I say it, and I didn’t have to say it after the game,” Martin said. “They felt like we didn’t defend well.”
Martin is looking for Tennessee to finish out the season strong, starting when the Vols host Mississippi (15-11, 5-7) on Wednesday night.
A solid finish could mean a high bid in the NIT, and a postseason tournament means more chances for the Vols to play together. That’s important for a team that included not only a new coaching staff this season but a significantly different lineup from Tennessee’s final season under Bruce Pearl.
Martin saw just how important the postseason was during his three years at Missouri State. The Bears won the 2010 CollegeInsider.com Tournament in his second season and then won the Missouri Valley Conference the following year.
“I think more than anything it’s important to continue to play games. It helps you continue to grow and get better. It’s amazing how if you finish your last game with a win — and that rarely happens — and you go into the next season with momentum.”
Even with Saturday’s setback against the Crimson Tide, the players think they’re in good position to close out the season. Hanging on to fourth place in the SEC would mean a bye for the first round of the conference tournament in March — something that seemed unfathomable for the Vols in November.
“We were coming in with a bunch of new guys and we really hadn’t played a lot of minutes together, so you don’t know where you’re going to be,” junior guard Skylar McBee said. “I think we’re in great position right now, and I think if we take care of business for the rest of the season, we’re going to be happy where we’re at.”
Published in The Messenger 2.21.12