Tennessee, which will face No. 11 Wichita State on Saturday, is off to a rough start after losing early matchups to both UTEP and Xavier. But Cuonzo Martin has faced more challenging circumstances in the past. The Vols' head coach overcame a bout with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when he was 26 years old. Martin recently spoke with ESPN.com about his team, this week’s critical matchup and the effect that his cancer battle had on his life and career.
ESPN: Your team lost a few early games at Xavier (67-63 Nov. 12) and against UTEP in the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas (78-70). What did your team learn from those losses and how can they help your program in the future?
Martin: I think the one at Xavier, true road game -- just going to a hostile environment -- we didn’t play as well as we were capable of playing. But it was good being in a true road environment. We came up short. And I think the one at UTEP, just give UTEP a lot of credit. We didn’t play well from start to finish; just felt like we weren’t into the game physically -- just came up short and learned from it.
ESPN: You all have some new faces (Jeronne Maymon missed last season with a knee injury, Antonio Barton transferred from Memphis and three freshmen arrived). What role do you think that has played in some of your squad’s early struggles?
Martin: Both games were different. At Xavier, Jarnell [Stokes] got two fouls there in the first half. [It was] Jeronne Maymon’s first game back outside the exhibition games. Three talented young freshmen playing in their first college game on the road. Antonio Barton, who missed eight days out with a leg injury ... he had maybe two practices before the actual game. Just all of those things. No excuse, they played well and won the game. In the UTEP game, we just didn’t play well. ... We didn’t defend at the level we needed to and there were spurts where we didn’t execute like we needed to, and it resulted in a loss. I think you learn from it because we have the talent. ... It’s one of those deals where you’d better learn it earlier than later.
ESPN: How significant is Saturday’s matchup at Wichita State?
Martin: I think it’s a big game for us. You’re talking about a very talented team, a team that did a great job making it to the Final Four. [Gregg Marshall has] done a good job of getting his guys to compete and play hard on a consistent basis, playing hard on both sides of the floor. I think it’ll be great for our guys. I think it’ll be a great atmosphere.
ESPN: When you were in your 20s, you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. How difficult was that experience?
Martin: It was very tough because it was just one of the things in my life -- I think I was 26 at the time when they first found out about it -- one of the first times in my life where I had no control over the situation. You know, growing up, you’re playing basketball or whatever sport you’re playing, you can control the outcome by getting better, working on your game and doing something about it. Well, this was the first time in my life outside of what the doctors were telling me and going through chemotherapy where I had no control over the situation, so that part was extremely tough. And then when you hear doctors say ‘I’m not sure what it is but it’s life threatening,’ those were just tough words to hear. I still remember those words to this day. But I’m blessed to be here almost 16 years later. ... You didn’t really know the outcome outside of praying and taking that medicine. Here I am.
ESPN: How did that experience change your outlook on life?
Martin: I think where it helped me -- I don’t think I was a bad guy before -- but I just think what it does, especially for me in coaching, is just learn how to appreciate the opportunity, the moment of going through something -- during the tough times, the highs and lows of sports, winning games. You learn how to appreciate the process of going through it because nothing is guaranteed. And tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I try to talk to my players about those things. Try to enjoy every moment and realistic enjoyment, not out of control, not being crazy. But just understanding that when they say life is short, it really is. But also raising my kids, having a good time, being there for them -- even in the little things, being honest with them, helping them grow in life. So those sorts of things. I thought I was a decent person before going through it, but I thought going through that and going from 215 pounds to 185 pounds and almost 175 pounds ... and laying in that hospital not knowing the outcome and so fatigued and drained and in pain, you just learn how to appreciate every opportunity you have just to breathe.
ESPN: How did that experience help you as a coach?
Martin: I was always rough as a basketball player. I think where it helps me more than anything is to be even-keeled, to keep your guys’ composure at a high level, to understand we’re OK, we’ve been in this situation before -- this is the best way to get out of it. Just be more relaxed and let your guys lock in on the task at hand instead of the environment. I think it has really helped me as a coach just to understand that tomorrow is a new day. And it’s easier said than done as a coach. It’s tough. But I watch film on it, study it, let’s get it corrected and keep moving. That’s the best way to do it. If not, it’ll eat you up.
ESPN: How important is an NCAA tournament bid for this program in 2013-14?
Martin: I think it would be great, not only for our team, but for our program. ... I think if we stay healthy, we’ll do that and we’ll be that. And that’s the biggest key, just staying healthy and having fun in the process.