This past year, we were one of five teams in the country that finished in the top 20 in the country in both offensive and defensive efficiency and you have to be able to do both. You've obviously got to score the ball, but we've got to do both.
Based on his comments at Wednesday's press conference, Cuonzo Martin evidently reads Kenpom. If he doesn't read kenpom specifically, then he's likely paying attention to one of the various other proprietary college basketball rating systems that have proliferated over the last few years. That, in and of itself, is exciting. I don't think it's necessary for a coach to buy into advanced statistical analysis to win basketball games, but I think it's a good sign that Cal's new head coach is open minded about new concepts that might help him be successful.
But what do the numbers actually say about the type of teams that Martin has fielded in three years at Missouri State and three years at Tennessee? Let's find out. But first, a disclaimer: I have essentially watched zero film of a Martin coached basketball team. I know essentially nothing about his preferred scheme and strategy. Thus, the numbers discussed below must be taken with a grain of salt. I'll try to extrapolate some conclusions, but what Cuonzo Martin puts out on the court next year, with players he didn't personally recruit, will likely be very different from what he worked with at his previous jobs.
2009: 204th in the nation
Martin took over a a team in transition in his first year at Missouri St. Five seniors had just graduated from a team that failed to live up to expectations, resulting in the dismissal of Barry Hinson. The first year was rough, but Martin quickly rebuilt the team mostly with players he recruited himself, and they quickly became contenders in the typically rugged Missouri Valley Conference. It's worth noting that Missouri St. took a step back each of the first two years after he left and hasn't really recovered. The pessimist could argue that Martin left an iffy situation behind for his successor, Paul Lusk. I think it's more likely that Missouri St.'s success has dried up once the last of Martin's players cycled out of the program - particularly once Kyle Weems graduated.
2012: 58th in the nation
In three years, Cuonzo Martin took a Tennessee team rocked by scandal and player departures into a national championship contender . . . if you're 100% on board with the advanced stats. Tennessee's odd 2014 profile of every win coming by a large margin and every loss coming by a small margin even continued into the NCAA tournament, where they won three games by double digits and lost in the Sweet 16 by two points to Big 10 champs Michigan.
Ultimately, I don't think it matters whether or not you think Tennessee really was as good as their efficiency stats indicate. What matters is how quickly Martin reshaped the Volunteers. After Bruce Pearl was fired, Tennessee lost four of their five top options from a team that finished 7th in the SEC and lost by 30 points in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was a team that probably didn't deserve to even make the tournament, but the best players on the roster all left anyway. And yet, Martin kept Tennessee at a respectable level in his first two years before his more successful 2014 campaign, that came with more controversy and opposition than he deserved.
It has been pointed out that Tennessee's 2014 squad was one of the 'unluckiest' teams of the year. Oddly, that has been something of a characteristic of Martin's teams. In four of his six years as a head coach he has finished near the bottom in luck measurement. In case you're wondering what I mean, here's the definition:
Luck - A measure of the deviation between a team's actual winning percentage and what one would expect from its game-by-game efficiencies. It's a Dean Oliver invention. Essentially, a team involved in a lot of close games should not win (or lose) all of them. Those that do will be viewed as lucky (or unlucky).
Martin has had two teams that were basically average in the luck rankings. Perhaps Martin struggles with coaching decisions in close games? Perhaps he's just been unlucky, and Cal bought some valuable stock that has been undervalued for irrational reasons. We'll find out.
While Martin is perhaps better known for his defenses, his offenses have generally been more efficient than his defenses. What I find interesting is how he's done it in different ways. In six years, I would say that the only defining characteristic of Martin's offenses has been an aversion to turnovers. Both teams he inherited were very turnover prone teams, and although it took him a year or two in both cases, by the end of his tenure he had developed offenses that didn't turn the ball over. It's worth noting that he hasn't generally had high usage, star point guards, but has still managed to avoid turnovers.
But other than a lack of turnovers, and perhaps a general preference to not rely on three point attempts, there isn't much of a pattern to how Martin builds a successful offense. His Missouri State teams were great shooting teams with a bunch of veteran, reliable guards. His Tennessee teams won with a focus on the interior, by crushing opponents on the offensive glass, despite being generally a mediocre shooting team.
Long story short: so far, Martin has done a good job tailoring his focus to the skill set of his players. It's worth noting that his leading offensive players tend to be wings (Jordan McRae, Kyle Weems) which should make Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews very, very excited.
With almost no exception, Martin's defenses have always had two characteristics in common: good defensive rebounding and minimal interest in forcing turnovers.
In that respect, his defensive leanings sound not unlike what we have seen under Mike Montgomery. Monty's worst defensive rebounding team still managed to pull down 68.8% of opponent misses, and that was Monty's first year with the guard oriented, Jerome-Randle-led Bears. Similarly, Martin's weakest defensive rebounding team still managed to pull down 69.1% of opponent misses, and that was year one at Missouri St. In year three at Missouri St. AND at Tennessee, his teams were elite defensive rebounding teams. Expect that to be a focus.
Not forcing turnovers is typically a stylistic decision. As a coach, you can press, trap, attack passing lanes, and try to force bad decisions, but you will compromise the integrity of your defense and give away easier baskets when you fail to force a turnover. You are also likely to foul more as a consequence. Monty and Martin both prefer to play more conservative systems focusing on making the opposition's (hopefully only) shot a tough one.
In that regard, Martin's defensive career has been hit and miss. His Missouri State teams really struggled to stop opponents from hitting shots. But as soon as he arrived at Tennessee, Martin saw much more success. Perhaps his preferred defensive style works better when it's being ran by the type of athletes major D1 schools can typically attract.
One other note: His defenses typically don't allow teams to attempt many 3 point shots. As any advanced stat nerd would tell you, preventing opponents from taking 3 point shots is much more important than the rate with which opponents hit 3 pointers, because the defense has some control over the former and next to no control over the latter. In each of the last four years Martin's teams have done an excellent job of doing just that.
Conclusions based on flimsy evidence
Like I said, this is all without watching Martin's actual teams. But after reviewing the numbers his teams have put up, viewed within the context of the situations he inherited, he doesn't seem to have an obvious weakness as a coach. Martin appears to be willing to shape his strategy to meet the strengths of his roster, his teams tend to improve year to year as well as within seasons, and he's not going to ignore offense at the expense of his defense or vice-versa. While his teams have had their weaknesses, there has not been any kind of constant fatal flaw seen in every Martin team. Those weaknesses are likely due to the limitations of the rosters he inherited.
Cal's current roster isn't a perfect roster. There will be growing pains. But there appears to be every reason to be optimistic about what Martin can do in both the short term and the long term. Gonzo for Cuonzo indeed.