Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Basketball Staff Writer
As it dealt with the threat of NCAA sanctions that forced out former coach Bruce Pearl, Tennessee needed to hire a successor equipped at handling adversity.
In that regard, the Volunteers couldn't have found a better fit than Cuonzo Martin.
When you've stared at the realistic possibility of losing your life, the threat of losing a few scholarships just doesn't seem like such a big deal anymore.
"It really made me slow down and evaluate everything," Martin says of the adversity he faced on his way to this opportunity. "Everybody has issues. Everybody goes through something. As a coach, you have to deal with it. Every player's different. You have to deal with it."
Martin, 39, has faced more issues than most of his peers. He fractured his knee in ninth grade and continued to have knee problems throughout his playing career. He would undergo knee surgery two more times before completing his college career at Purdue.
"When we first got Cuonzo, the trainer said he'd never play for us because [his knee] was bone on bone," says Gene Keady, who coached him at Purdue. "That was a concern, of course, but we didn't know what kind of heart he had."
Martin helped lead the Boilermakers to back-to-back Big Ten championships in 1993-94 and 1994-95 and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior in 1994-95. Purdue posted a combined 90-37 record and reached three NCAA tournaments during Martin's career, including a regional final appearance in his junior season.
"I would say in my 25 years at Purdue, he was the best leader I ever had," Keady says.
Martin's toughest challenge was still to come.
After finishing a brief NBA career with the Milwaukee Bucks and Vancouver Grizzlies, Martin was playing professionally in Italy when he started feeling strange. Martin had played well early in the year, but he felt exhausted in the second half of the season. He started losing weight and lost his appetite.
"It got to the point where I couldn't get up and down the court," Martin recalls.
The source of Martin's exhaustion became apparent when X-rays revealed a mass in his chest. He caught a flight to Indianapolis the next morning and underwent more tests. The result was the same: He had a mass the size of a baseball.
Looming NCAA sanctions could force new Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin into a rebuilding situation, but his record at Missouri State shows he knows how to have a program winning again in short order.
NIT second round
One CIT, one NIT
"The scariest thing I had to hear was when the doctor said it was life-threatening," Martin says. "There are a lot of things I'd seen and had been through growing up in East St. Louis, but to actually hear those words, that's tough."
Martin spent 4 1/2 months in chemotherapy being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a form of cancer that generally starts in the white blood cells. He lost 35-40 pounds, and there were days in which he'd fall asleep on the couch, wake up for about 20 minutes, then go back to sleep.
His former coach never lost faith that Martin would make it back.
"After he came home from Europe, I saw he was kind of stuck about what to do with his future," Keady says. "I said, 'Once you get your cancer treated up and get your degree, I'll hire you as an assistant coach.' "
Martin was fortunate enough to regain his health, and he still remembers the date of his last chemotherapy treatment: April 20, 1998.
Two years later, Martin earned his bachelor's degree and began working on Keady's staff.
Martin remained at Purdue until Missouri State offered him a head-coaching opportunity in 2008. After going 11-20 in their first season under Martin, the Bears went 24-12 and won the College Insiders Tournament in 2009-10. Last season, Missouri State won its first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title in school history and finished 26-9 with a second-round NIT appearance.
Although his Missouri State experience shows he knows how to build a program in short order, Martin admits he faces a tougher challenge at his new school. Tennessee has earned six consecutive NCAA tournament bids, but inexperience and adversity could cause the Volunteers to struggle this season.
Senior guard Cameron Tatum is the only returning starter from a team that went 19-15 last season. The pending NCAA investigation could cause distractions for Tennessee's current players while complicating Martin's recruiting efforts.
"Missouri State was just the transition of being a first-time head coach and also the personnel had to get better," Martin said. "In this case, we only have one proven guy who played major minutes [last season] in Cameron Tatum. ... You have to get these guys to play at a high level, bring in quality pieces, and you're also dealing with the NCAA issue."
The players also may be dealing with a change in approach. Tennessee generally liked to run up and down the court during Pearl's six-season tenure, though the Vols could slow down the tempo when circumstances dictated it. Missouri State generally played at a much more deliberate pace under Martin.
College basketball stats guru Ken Pomeroy's website (www.kenpom.com ) ranks teams by adjusted tempo, which divides total possessions by minutes, then adjusts the number based on the preferred pace of each opponent and when each game was played. Tennessee's adjusted tempo over the past three seasons had an average ranking of 103rd, while Missouri State's was at 280th.
Streak on the line
Tennessee made the NCAA tournament in each of Bruce Pearl's six seasons on the job, but that streak could be in jeopardy next season even if the Vols don't receive a postseason ban as part of their looming sanctions. Senior guard Cameron Tatum is Tennessee's only returning starter. Here's how the Vols fared under Pearl.
NCAA 2nd round
NCAA Sweet 16
NCAA Sweet 16
NCAA 1st round
NCAA regional final
NCAA round of 64
"I do believe we'll probably slow it down a lot more than with Coach Pearl," Tatum said. "With Coach Pearl, it was run-and-gun, up and down the floor. I watched a few films of Missouri State and saw how they play. ... I think we'll slow it down a little bit. I think that fits well for the players we have. Everybody's really interested and eager to buy in and soak up the knowledge Coach Martin has."
That doesn't necessarily mean Tennessee's going to try to keep the score in the low 60s. Missouri State ranked second in the Valley in scoring last season and led the league at 71.4 points per game in 2009-10. Tennessee (69.9) and Missouri State (69.8) posted almost the exact same scoring averages last season.
Of course at this point, the pace of the NCAA's investigation is garnering as much attention as the pace of Martin's offense. Martin would love to have the NCAA make its ruling as soon as possible, giving Tennessee a chance to move forward and allowing potential recruits to know what's in store. But until that time comes, Martin is reminding his players to focus on the task at hand without getting caught up in any off-court issues.
"Coach Martin's whole thing is not to worry about [the NCAA] and just worry about what you can control," Tatum said. "Work hard and try to get better each day. That goes for off the court as well as on the court. Worry about bettering yourself on the basketball floor and everything else will take care of itself."
Martin can use his playing career as an example. He made himself a quality outside shooter through hard work and repetition. Martin attempted a total of seven 3-pointers and didn't make any of them his first two seasons at Purdue. He went a combined 179-of-390 from beyond the arc in his final two seasons and ended his career as the Boilermakers' leading career 3-point shooter, though his mark has since been broken.
His players will need that same kind of work ethic to erase the memories of the past several months. Tennessee dropped eight of its final 12 games last season and closed the year with an embarrassing 75-45 loss to Michigan in its first NCAA tournament game. Star forward Tobias Harris said afterward that the Vols "basically just quit."
Harris would go on to leave after his freshman season, and he's now a member of the Milwaukee Bucks after being taken with the 19th overall pick in the NBA draft. Scotty Hopson also decided to turn pro, though the three-year starter went undrafted. Their departures leave Tennessee without the only players who averaged in double figures for the Vols last season.
Tennessee shouldn't struggle as much as Missouri State did in Martin's first season there, but the Vols' string of NCAA tournament appearances looks to be in jeopardy. But the skepticism surrounding the program could give the Vols just the type of attitude Martin wants from his players.
"It's about getting them to compete with mental and physical toughness first and foremost," Martin says. "For the most part, we have guys walking around with a chip on their shoulder. Everybody's counting them out because we lost Tobias and Scotty. Everyone's going to be hungry to play some basketball."
That kind of approach could help Tennessee silence the doubters. And it certainly wouldn't be the first time Martin has beaten the odds.