Cuonzo Martin at Cal: Q+A with Tennessee SB Nation site Rocky Top Talk

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk with his Tennessee fans to get the low down.

With Cal snagging Tennessee coach, Cuonzo Martin, we decided to talk with our friends over at Rocky Top Talk.  They are good people out East and we were happy to get some information about Martin from them.  Many thanks to Will Shelton for providing some great thoughts on Cuonzo and what we can expect from our new MBB coach.  Go Bears!.

1. The Twitterverse suggests that a substantial segment of Vol Nation is happy to see Cuonzo go. Accurate assessment? Why?

I'm not sure it's more than 50% of the fanbase, but there are some who think Tennessee got the best possible outcome here. So much of what happened with Cuonzo Martin at UT is related directly to Bruce Pearl. Pearl took the Vols to six straight NCAA Tournaments, three Sweet 16s and the program's first ever Elite Eight. Plus the Vols were ranked #1 in 2008 and won the SEC Championship that year. His success was unprecedented here, and the next guy was always going to struggle if he couldn't duplicate it.

Fans were patient for two years and two heartbreaking Sundays on the bubble, but when this third team full of upperclassmen got off to a slow start, there were a lot of fans who jumped too quickly to a false hope Pearl would return. So some of those fans probably still feel like they were right (I would say incorrectly so) now that Cuonzo is gone even after a great tournament run to the Sweet 16.

2. What is Cuonzo's biggest strength as a head coach? Conversely, what's his biggest weakness?

First of all, Cuonzo's biggest strength is his character. This is a first class human being and a great leader and role model for his players. Cuonzo has never received a technical foul in his entire career. Some fans don't like that particular aspect and he's certainly less animated than most, but you'll find no one who says anything bad about him as a human being. His teams will be built on an identity of toughness and defense. When he gets his players to buy in, defensively his teams can be very good. Cuonzo's first UT team out-performed its talent level in SEC play because the players finally bought in to his approach, and as a result a team picked to finish 11th in the SEC finished second.

The biggest difference in his final UT team was again the players' commitment to defense down the stretch, which keyed UT's tournament appearance and run. He had the personnel to have excellent rebounding teams here as well, but I don't know if that will translate to Cal without a player like Jarnell Stokes. Conversely, he's not the best at offensive design and execution - the Vols ran a motion-based offense here but it often lacked purpose and relied too heavily on star players making plays instead of creativity from the bench. Also, his three Tennessee teams all got off to incredibly slow starts in the non-conference (3-6, 8-4, 9-4) which certainly caused fan frustration before every one of his teams went on an 8-1 run late in the season.



3. Recruiting: is he good at it? What were his most fertile areas of the country for recruits and do you think he will succeed as a west coast recruiter?

The national recruiting rankings won't do him a ton of favors, but he did pull in four consecutive Top 50 classes (all ranking from the mid-30s to the upper-40s), while Cal has only had two in the last four years, so you may get a slight upgrade there. Cuonzo recruits for his system, meaning he will sign lots of three star guys he thinks will play hard, play defense, and be good character kids.

At Tennessee you have to recruit Atlanta and Memphis, the latter being a real right with the Tigers right there, but Cuonzo did pull two five star kids out of that area. Beyond that Cuonzo is a midwestern guy who continued to recruit the midwest at UT; the Vols' best player next year will be from Oklahoma. He has no experience recruiting successfully on the west coast, but I have no doubt he'll still be able to find guys who fit his system.

4. Tennessee had an excellent APR score when the numbers came out last year. How much credit should we give Cuonzo for that?

A ton. One of Cuonzo's biggest assets at UT was his character and his emphasis on growing young men, and it showed up in the classroom. Bruce Pearl didn't have any academic issues but cast a questionable shroud over the program with his NCAA issues, and Cuonzo helped remove it; the Vols had one player who had a relationship with a tutor and was subsequently dismissed, but otherwise Tennessee excelled in the classroom at levels not seen before.

5. This news took most Cal fans completely by surprise. Were there rumblings about this on the Tennessee side or was it equally unexpected?

When Cuonzo was in the running for the Marquette job I think most of us thought he would take it after the way he was treated by some in the fanbase and an apparently icy relationship with an athletic director who didn't hire him. But then he pulled his name out (which now certainly seems like he wasn't offered the job) and he and our athletic director issued a joint statement about Tennessee being where he wanted to be.

So being later in the calendar and Cal not carrying the basketball success Marquette has had, I think this caught absolutely everyone at UT by surprise. It is not surprising Martin left - I think the writing was on the wall for his eventual absence - but we were shocked it was this year and this opening after the Marquette situation.

6. What is Martin's philosophy on offense? On defense? Has he proven adaptable to different personnel or is he ‘stubborn' in his approach?

Offense is motion-based. Cuonzo's offense really struggles without strong point guard play, something he had only in flashes at UT. He is fond of saying, "If you defend well and rebound well, you can win even when shots don't fall." This is true more often than not, but can be frustrating when the offense appears to lack much purpose. His defense is 95% man-to-man with a ton of action, communication, and switching.

When it's done well Tennessee was incredibly difficult to score on; the Vols held #1 Florida to their lowest scoring output of the season and no team put 80 points on us this year. When it's not done well - usually effort and communication being the culprits - the Vols can struggle to put up enough offense on the other end. Tennessee lost back to back games to Georgetown and Virginia last year where it failed to score 40 points.

But when the defensive intensity is there and shots fall? Tennessee blew out 1-seed Virginia by 35 this year and beat Kentucky by 30 last year. The Vols won both of their Round of 64 & 32 tournament games this year in runaway blowouts. You won't get that stuff every night, of course, but if the players buy in defensively this system can win.




7.  Are there any stars on his staff that he should make sure to bring to Cal?

Honestly, we were clamoring for an offensive-minded assistant to help get a more fluid and productive system in place.  The biggest loss for the Vols may be strength coach Nicodemus Christopher if he follows Martin to Cal - this guy helped Jarnell Stokes go from a big wrecking ball at 6'8" 280 to a sculpted 6'8" 260 who could run the floor and still knock you over.  And you will not find a bench coach in America with more passionate celebrations during the game.


8. Where does Tennessee go from here?

The biggest debate among UT fans is whether we'll pay elite money.  The Vols trail only Kentucky in the SEC all-time in wins, attendance, and passion from the fanbase in a football conference.  But Cuonzo was the 11th highest paid head coach in our league.  So the hope among many here is the Vols will offer a $2-plus million dollar deal to the likes of Gregg Marshall or Shaka Smart, which UT can much more easily afford with Cal paying Martin's $1.3 million buyout.  If the Vols don't land one of those, I'd look for a mid-major name like Donnie Tyndall of Southern Miss; the Vols' last two hires have come from Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Missouri State.

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