It’s been fascinating to watch the NCAA basketball season unfold. This season we saw another version of the one and done phenoms in Lexington underperform all year only to turn it on at tournament time. We watched Michigan State run up victories at a blistering pace only to be crushed by injuries midseason and claw their way back as they got healthy. I was watching the games on ESPN when Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart went all Bobby Knight on some sideline furniture in one game and then channel his inner Ron Artest a few games later, going into the stands to confront a big mouth fan who had catapulted himself across the line between spectator and enemy combatant. Smart should have drilled the guy in my opinion.
Living in Knoxville and being a fan of the Volunteers has made the season even more fascinating. Oh we didn’t have any of that drama; no fights with the fans in Thompson Boling, no injuries to any key players, no, none of that. In Knoxville we had The Petition. The Bring Back Bruce petition to be exact.
Unhappy with the current state of UT basketball after some buzzer beater losses to Texas A&M and a bad loss to Vandy, an enterprising fan realized Knoxville’s beloved son, Bruce Pearl, was coming off his three year NCAA penalty in August, conveniently still living in Knoxville, and thus ripe for hire. Or in this case rehire. Caught lying and coercing others to lie about minor recruiting violations, Pearl was fired by UT after the 2011 NCAA Tournament. A tournament in which the Volunteers were crushed by Michigan in the first round 75-45.
As you can see in the picture, 36,000 UT faithful(?) signed the petition to have Cuonzo Martin fired. Don’t be fooled. That’s what it says. There is a little known dynamic principal in basketball handed down from Naismith himself that states, “No two college coaches can occupy the same job at the same time.” From that we get the equation ∫BP(rehired)=ƒCM(fired).
So the only way Bruce Pearl could be rehired was if UT fired Cuonzo Martin. This is important as a lot of signatories/faithful used the excuse, “The petition did not call for Martin’s firing, only if we would like Pearl back should Martin BE fired” to run for cover when Martin’s Vols made the Sweet 16. I refer you to the previous formula and that great presidential quote, “It depends on what the definition of IS is.”
Full disclosure here, I loved the Martin hire. I still do. I grew up in the mean streets of South Jersey a stones throw from Philadelphia. College basketball for us in the 70s and 80s was the Big 5 City Series featuring Temple, Villanova, St Joes, LaSalle, and Drexel. Watching John Chaney’s match up zone scare the hell out of Kentucky, Kansas, Duke, etc.. was great. That Temple defense carried the Owls to 5 Elite Eights and 714 of the programs 1800 wins. Only five other teams can make the 1800 win claim. Of course watching Rollie Massimino’s Nova Wildcats defense make a basket-case out of Patrick Ewing and the Georgetown Hoyas, carrying them to the NCAA Title in 1985 was the highlight of all highlights. So in other words I’m a sucker for a team that can D-up. Hence the love of the Cuonzo Martin hire.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked Bruce Pearl a lot. He won games. Plus I hated Buzz Ball. Buzz Peterson was Pearl’s predecessor and I firmly believe I could have coached them boys up better than freaking Buzz Ball. That’s really what endeared Pearl to the fan base so quickly. He took the same squad Buzz was getting mopped up with night in and night out, ran them to the Tournament, destroying the non-conference schedule and putting the fear of God into conference foes along the way. But in the end Pearl got himself fired and now hired by Auburn. Believe what you want about Pearl’s situation, the long and short of it is Pearl lied, coerced others to lie, and got himself fired. It’s not much more complicated than that.
So now we have Cuonzo Martin. It’s been a slow start to be sure, but the man is only in his third season and the boys went to the Sweet 16. Winning 3 games to get there. Of course you could never convince the faithful of that. See, that first comeback victory over Iowa doesn’t count in their eyes. It’s not the Tournament to them. Oh you know it was a non-confernce opponent late in March, played on a neutral floor where the winner advanced and the loser went home, but no it’s not the Tournament. Then Martin’s squad dismantled 6th seed UMass. OVERRATED THOSE MINUTEMEN ARE!
Then the trap door of all trap doors. A hot Mercer squad busted up Duke and the Vols would miss their chance to beat a team worthy of the faithful’s approval. Of course UT decapitated Mercer on their way to the Sweet 16 and 8 wins in the last 9 games while holding opponents to 54 points or less and shooting almost 80% from the free throw line. All this while a lot of the fan base, or at least 36,000 of them, was working publicly to get Martin fired.
A lot of commonalities between Pearl and Martin here: defense, free throw shooting, and adversity.
Defense – Pearl’s teams didn’t believe in it. They would just outscore you. But that leads to blow outs. A lot of the time UT was the victor, sometimes they were the victim. Martin’s team lives on defense and because of that they are rarely out of any game until the final buzzer.
They were getting blown out by Michigan in the first half of Friday’s Sweet 16 game. It was if the ghost of Pearl’s teams rose from the dead. UT was running and gunning from three, shooting 50% from the stripe and they were in danger of getting run off the floor. In the second half Martin’s team showed up and we saw what we had never seen from Pearl. A comeback. Save for a bad foul call in the last 9 seconds, UT may be in the Elite 8 right now. Can you remember a Pearl team clamping down on D to get themselves back in the game from 15 points down in a Tournament game? It may have happened but I can’t remember it.
Free throw shooting – Pearl’s teams were god awful and it cost them games. They never seemed to get better either. Martin’s teams have bettered their FT percentage each year. The biggest improvement has been their big man Stokes. He was something like 56% from the stripe last year. This year he’s in the 70% range. That’s a big deal
Adversity – Pearl’s gang folded, Martin’s guys just won games.
In 2011 when all the NCAA allegations stuff started to filter out the fan base rallied around Pearl. They backed him, as they should have. Only the press was speculating about Pearl’s future, the fans, myself included, were 100% with Pearl. The athletic department would only say the situation would be reviewed once UT was out of the tournament. Not exactly the most tactful way to say that as it implies UT had no chance to win, but guess what, they didn’t have a chance. They got embarrassed by Michigan, losing by 30. Hilariously that statement by the AD Dept was offered up by fans for the reason they lost to Michigan. It distracted them. Really?
So flash forward to 2014, the fan base is not just calling for the firing of Martin, but putting up public petitions to submit to the UT administration saying in effect, you work for us, now fire Martin and bring back Bruce. Add to that the UT front office’s unwillingness to show any support for Martin or at the very least come out and denounce the petition as folly.
None of that happened so what did Martin’s guys do when the fan based turned on them? Won 8 of their last 9, played the most crushing defense of any team in the country at that time and had b-ball analysts from ESPN, CBS, even sports writers from Lexington, predicting a deep run for UT. Of course that’s exactly what they did. This teams mental toughness and the solid foundation of their coach allowed them to not only play through adversity but play better, much better. No distractions noted.
So yeah Martin has not won as much as Pearl yet. Yeah he may be rough around the edges where Pearl was a master ring leader, but I believe his formula is set up for a longer, more successful haul.
I get time softens history’s rough edges but let’s be honest, Pearl’s magical 6 appearances in the Tournament that everyone keeps touting were not blazes of glory. In 2006 UT was a 2 seed and needed end game heroics to get by Winthrop and then lost to 7 seed Wichita State. In 08 they got busted in the second round by a mediocre Georgetown team. In 09 they lost to 8 seed Oklahoma St in the first round. 2011 was the afore mentioned blowout loss to Michigan in the first round.
Is Pearl a good coach? Absolutely. Is he the end all be all of college coaching? Not by a long shot.
But the treatment Martin has received from the faithful is completely unwarranted. I’d be surprised if Marquette or Wake Forrest doesn’t come calling with a real long term deal. I hope Martin stays but if I was his agent I’d tell him to take the deal and drop a resignation letter on Dave Hart’s desk on the way out of town.
If that happens we’ll be trading a diamond for a lump of coal.
No matter though. Spring practice has started for UT football. All is right with the world.
So when does the Boot Butch, un-Fire Fulmer petition go up?