The Tennessee Volunteers have just one more regular-season game until the all-important SEC tournament. Their record stands at 19-11, with a 10-7 conference record. Once again, the Volunteers are one of the teams on the outskirts of the NCAA Tournament field.
This reality has been an all-too-common theme during coach Cuonzo Martin’s time on Rocky Top. As his third season draws to a close, the Vol’s final games represent more than just an attempt to reach the NCAA Tournament: they are also a final opportunity for Martin to state his case to the University that he should be retained as basketball coach. When the team’s season concludes, the administration is going to have to decide whether Martin is their coach or if they want new leadership.
Cuonzo Martin was hired as basketball coach in 2011, shortly after Bruce Pearl was fired after allegations of NCAA violations. He had spent the previous three years as head coach at Missouri State and then-Athletic Director Mike Hamilton lauded his potential as a coach on the rise and the leadership he’d bring to a program recovering from the quagmire of Pearl’s final days.
Martin picked up right where he left off at Missouri State, which has resulted in good-but-not-great teams that find themselves on the outside looking in on Selection Sunday. His first two campaigns saw the team post 19-15 and 20-13 records, respectively. In itself, these records are impressive given the self-imposed probation the university issued to the basketball program.
Regardless of the obstacles Martin has faced while heading the team, one fact remains: The Volunteers haven’t been able to match the postseason success of years past. The only postseason the Volunteers have attended in the Martin era has been the National Invitation Tournament, where they haven’t advanced past the second round. Here, the importance of this season comes to forefront of not only Martin’s priorities, but that of UT’s administration.
The reality of the situation is that Martin likely needs to win out and lead the Volunteers to a deep run in the SEC tournament in order to save his job. Making the NCAA Tournament field appears to be a necessity at this point. Tennessee got off to a good start towards this goal Saturday by drubbing rival Vanderbilt 76-38 at Thompson-Bowling Arena. After traveling to Auburn next Wednesday, the Volunteers host their final game of the regular season when the Missouri Tigers come to Knoxville.
Whenever Tennessee’s basketball season ends, the administration will have a decision to make. Mike Hamilton’s replacement, Dave Hart, didn’t hire Cuonzo Martin and perhaps wants to move forward in a different direction. If the Volunteers fail to make the tournament for the third consecutive year, that would heavily impact Hart’s decision. There are sure to be several candidates UT would like to explore once the season ends. The administration will be inclined to explore their options unless Martin provides a reason to be retained. Regardless of what ultimately happens, the next few weeks promise to be very interesting for Rocky Top.
Edited by Will Lomas