<
>

Summer Buzz: Tennessee Volunteers

Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Tennessee.Insider

When your program's most successful basketball coach in history lies to NCAA investigators, a few things tend to happen:

  1. Your program becomes subject to wills of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.

  2. You fire that coach. (You might wait an entire season in the vain hope things work out. But eventually, yeah, you fire that coach.)

  3. You look for a new coach, one who doesn't mind inheriting a post-sanctions quagmire.

  4. You hope that coach knows what he's doing.

By all accounts, Tennessee succeeded on the fourth count. Cuonzo Martin wasn't hired only because he was one of the few rising college hoops coaches who still had his hand up when former coach Bruce Pearl, now a hot commodity on the D-League circuit, brought the Volunteers crashing down around him. Willingness is one thing, and Tennessee was probably just fine finding someone who actually wanted to come to Knoxville.* But willing and able? When you're in UT's situation, that's another issue entirely.

(*I remember reading a Tennessee fan forum post during the Vols' coaching search. The discussion was centered on plausible coaching candidates, and at one point, a poster exclaimed that he expected the Vols to pursue Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart, among others. This was funny, but it was also kind of sad.)

Considering the circumstances, Martin might have been the best possible hire. He has big-time recruiting experience in the Big Ten, a familiarity with high-major hoops, and his most recent coaching expedition, the one that earned him national buzz, saw him transform a struggling Missouri State program into a team that won the school's first MVC regular-season title and at various times looked like an NCAA tournament at-large contender.

That's the able part. As for the willingness, well, Martin's there. He wanted the job. And as has been written more than once in this space and others, the coach who grew up on the rough streets of East St. Louis and survived a mid-20s bout with cancer probably scoffs at the idea that rebuilding a major college hoops program constitutes "adversity." When you think about it that way, it does seem sort of silly.

Within the context of college basketball, though, Tennessee's future is looking plenty adverse.

For one, there's the looming likelihood of NCAA sanctions. We're not sure what the Committee on Infractions will eventually hand down to the Volunteers, but we do know that the men's basketball and football programs are being investigated simultaneously, and the NCAA almost certainly has concerns about the school's ability to, in the NCAA's terms, foster an atmosphere of compliance.

We also know that the NCAA is slowly but surely ramping up its penalties for violations; harsher penalties have been a cornerstone of new NCAA president Mark Emmert's talking points on enforcement all the way through this week's presidential retreat in Indianapolis.

Neither bodes well for the Vols. The penalties are likely to be severe. Before the fall arrives, Martin may lose future scholarships. He may face recruiting restrictions. He might even be confronting the possibility of a postseason ban. I don't need to page ESPN recruiting expert Dave Telep to confirm that these things are not exactly boons to recruiting. If the penalty is severe enough, it may be years before Martin can recruit with a full toolbox.

The other reason Tennessee's future is looking dim -- and this is more to the point of the Buzz series, which is ostensibly a look at the year to come -- is that Pearl didn't leave a lot of experienced talent behind. Freshman standout Tobias Harris left for the NBA, as did inconsistent-but-talented guard Scotty Hopson. Senior stalwarts Melvin Goins and Brian Williams, alongside useful reserves like Steven Pearl, John Fields and Josh Bone, have all graduated.

To make things worse, both of Pearl's ESPNU 100 recruits for the class of 2011 ditched the Vols when the former coach was fired. What remains is a class that looks more like a pretty good mid-major one. The best player in the group is small forward Josh Richardson, a three-star talent ranked No. 40 overall at his position.

The rest -- point guard Wesley Washpun, shooting guard Quinton Cheivous and center Yemi Makanjuola -- are less heralded players unlikely to make major impacts at the collegiate level. At the very least, the class is a far cry from what Tennessee fans grew accustomed to in the Pearl years. Expectations must change accordingly.

The good news, at least for the immediate future, is that a few players from Pearl's last class on campus are still, in fact, on campus. The most promising of these is sophomore guard Jordan McRae, who arrived in Knoxville as the No. 10-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2010. McRae didn't make an impact in his freshman season -- heaven forbid Hopson didn't get his shots up -- but with so much lost in the Pearl debacle, McRae now has a chance to earn the spotlight at the next level. (And fellow sophomore shooting guard Trae Golden should get some decent run, too.)

Meanwhile, the lone starter returning to Tennessee is 6-foot-6 forward Cameron Tatum, a role player in 2011 that will have to become far more aggressive -- and, if possible, much more efficient -- in 2012. There are some junior college players and little-used reserves plugging the holes here, too; newcomer Dwight Miller, who spent time at Pittsburgh before transferring to Midland College in Texas, was one of the 10 or so best Juco prospects in the country this season and could play big minutes right away.

Former Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon is still in the mix. Renaldo Woolridge -- who retired his rap moniker "Swiperboy" this week -- played a key role for Tennessee when the scandal involving Tyler Smith and others threatened to derail the Volunteers' 2009-10 season. Forward Kenny Hall and guard Skylar McBee are names you might recognize, though neither player has been a standout in limited minutes thus far in his career.

During the Pearl era, Tennessee thrived on uptempo basketball, a free-flowing, don't-worry-just-shoot-it offense and a tenacious press. Prepare for something new under Martin. At Missouri State, Martin's teams were distinctly slow: In 2011, the Bears ranked No. 309 in the nation in adjusted tempo. (They were faster than that in 2009 and 2010, but not by much.)

That sloth was a product not only of Martin's own style and coaching background at Purdue, but also of the typically slow MVC. In 2011, the Bears were the kind of team that deliberates on offense, works for a quality shot and makes those shots count, especially on the perimeter. (Missouri State made 37.6 percent of its 3s in 2011. Rank? No. 40.) This style couldn't possibly contrast more from the 2010-11 Vols, who were in many ways undone by rushed offense, bad shot selection and good old-fashioned bad shooting. (UT made 30.0 percent of its 3s in 2011. Rank? No. 323.)

Martin's first item of business, then, is to play the hand he's been dealt and, like any willing gambler, make the most of it. Or, to use a Bob Knight catchphrase, he has to make chicken salad out of chicken ... well, you know. But it could work: Teams with less talent are usually better off slowing things down anyway, and if Martin can limit his team's possessions and find the right combination of shooters, he might be able to keep Tennessee in games when the Vols' talent is clearly inferior to its opponent's.

This, really, is the best hope for Tennessee in 2011-12. The Volunteers have a long slog ahead of them, one that will only be made worse by the NCAA sanctions set to arrive shortly.

So long term, the Vols needed someone both willing and able, and they did well to find it in Martin. Long term, the program should survive. Short term -- and this includes next season -- it's going to be a struggle. Pretending otherwise is wishful thinking.

But that's what happens when your most successful coach in school history lies to NCAA investigators. Now it's up to Martin to pick up the pieces.