"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Can 36,000 Volunteers Be Wrong?

Earlier this year, 36,000 Tennessee fans signed an online petition hoping to get the school to fire basketball coach Cuonzo Martin & bring back Bruce Pearl. Martin's team responded with 5 straight wins before a loss to #1 Florida in the SEC Tourney & followed that up with an improbable Sweet 16 run that prompted one Vol fan to write an open apology letter.

After Tennessee's thrilling 73-71 loss to Michigan in the Sweet 16, his name has emerged as a possible replacement for Buzz Williams. After #ShakaWatch, it's to be expected that Warrior fans are lukewarm to just about any candidate. Names like Howland, Wardle, & even Bennett have been mentioned, among others. Yet the more I watched Martin's Tennessee team, especially in the tournament, the more I feel he would be a good fit at Marquette.

I am not at all a fan of basing a coach's resume on one March run. Does anyone really believe that Buzz Williams' 2013 Elite 8 team was better than the 2009 or 2012 teams that lost earlier in the tournament? But last night, Martin's Volunteers trailed 70-60 with less than 4 minutes to play. They stormed back to trim the lead to 72-71 & had the ball in the final seconds with a chance to win. That wasn't the first time UT refused to give up. In the play-in game in Dayton, Martin's team didn't take their first lead until 2:40 left against Iowa. They hung in, forced overtime, & dominated the Hawkeyes in the extra frame, following that up with similarly dominant performances against UMass & Mercer.

Some may wonder why Martin would want to leave. Tennessee AD Dave Hart was hired after Martin & showed little public support for his coach. Martin also likely understands that fans & boosters are fickle, & the fans & boosters praising him now are the same ones who wanted him fired a few weeks ago & refused to fund his recruiting efforts. Martin would become a viable candidate on April 1, when his buyout drops from $2.6 to $1.3 million. After paying Buzz Williams a base of $1.8 million, Martin is definitely affordable for Marquette.


Before dissecting this, the most important recruiting job Marquette's next coach has is to retain current players. Many coaching changes bring massive roster overhauls. That hasn't been the case for Martin. At Missouri State, he was able to retain all 5 significant returning players. The only 2007-08 player not to return was freshman Tomas Brock, who never played another minute of D1 basketball. When Martin took over for Pearl, Scotty Hopson & Tobias Harris declared for the NBA Draft, but he retained every other player from the 2010-11 roster. At Marquette, it is vital to retain talented players like Deonte Burton, Duane Wilson, Luke Fischer, & Jajuan Johnson (who Martin recruited at UT) to keep the program running at a high level. Martin has proven he can do that.

Martin has also successfully recruited 5-star players. Jarnell Stokes was a blue-chip big man that was the first recruit to play for Martin at Tennessee. Robert Hubbs was another five-star Martin recruit Martin. He didn't land 4-star players with Buzz Williams consistency, but he also didn't see constant transfers, with the exception being graduate transfer Trae Golden. Martin also offered Marquette commit Ahmed Hill & target Diamond Stone. Those relationships would give him a shot at retaining Williams' highest rated 2014 signing & landing the coveted Stone, especially with the ability to sell a staff that developed the Volunteers' front line of Stokes & former MU player Jeronne Maymon. Martin was also a solid recruiter while an assistant at Purdue, bringing in players like Robbie Hummel & E'Twuan Moore.

His current assistants are well-rounded but feature many local ties. Associate Head Coach Tracy Webster coaches the guards & played at Wisconsin, with assistant stops at Kentucky, DePaul, & Illinois. Kent Williams has been with Martin since MSU & works with the wings. A likely local favorite would be big man coach Jon Harris, who played at Marquette on the 2003 Final Four team & had stops at MU & Green Bay before joining Martin's staff at MSU.


Martin's teams have improved every year in terms off offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com. In addition, he has had a top-100 rating in eFG% defense each year at Tennessee & a top-30 overall defensive rating in two of his three years with the Vols. His teams don't play at a fast pace, but that could very well be a positive. If you look at the teams that are playing this weekend, 13 of the 16 teams to make the Sweet 16 played at a tempo outside the top-100, & of the remaining teams in the Elite 8, only Michigan State (#196) is in the top-200. Like it or not, playing at a slower, more methodical pace seems to be a recipe for success in March. In the past 3 years, only 3 teams have reached the Elite 8 with a tempo in the top-100, & of those, only the 2012 Ohio State team reached the Final Four. Martin's teams have trended in the right direction & play a style that generally leads to March success.


In Martin's six years as a head coach, his teams have won 20 or more games 4 times, just narrowly missing that mark with a 19-15 record in his first year at Tennessee. He took his Missouri State team from a last-place MVC finish in his first year all the way to a regular season title just two years later before being upset by Indiana State in the conference final. At Tennessee, he averaged 21 wins in 3 years & went 32-20 in SEC play.

Another impressive note about Martin's teams is that in the last 4 seasons, his teams have gone 30-10 in the last 10 games of the season including conference tournaments. That's a strong indicator that his teams trend upward at the most important time of the season.

Bottom Line

Martin may or may not be the right man for the Marquette job. It wouldn't be at all surprising to see Wake Forest, Boston College, USF, or even his alma mater Purdue get in the running for him. But those that knock him simply because he hasn't shown enough, I would encourage them to look at the resumes Billy Donovan, Bo Ryan, Tom Izzo, or Mike Krzyzewski had before they arrived at their current stops. Martin is more accomplished & experienced as a head coach than all four of them were combined. Most legendary coach hires aren't situations where a school lands a Roy Williams, Rick Pitino, or John Calipari that already have had success at the highest levels, & when those hires are made it is only at the bluest of blue-blood institutions.

Martin is a Midwest guy, has recruited current Marquette players & targets, & has proven he can win. He was unfairly treated at Tennessee & could do wonders at a program that offers the budget, facilities, & dedication to basketball that Marquette has. If nothing else, today is the 20th anniversary of the day Tennessee signed away Marquette Head Coach Kevin O'Neill on the heels of a Sweet 16 run. It may be time for the Warriors to even that score.

1 comment:

Bill Waldron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.