Tennessee fans have put Pearl, Martin, Tyndall in rear-view mirror

Were Tennessee fans racists for wanting Cuonzo Martin fired? Maybe they just wanted a lost spark of energy back. And perhaps that spark of energy has finally returned.

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In my opinion, Tennessee basketball is just fine.

Let’s take a step back in time for a minute. The year is 2014, and Tennessee has made a late push for a bid in the NCAA tournament. As an 11-seed with a play-in game against the Iowa Hawkeyes, not too many people were expecting much of a run from this team. I mean, earlier in the season the Vols lost to a UTEP team that would go on to lose in the first round of the CBI. They need to just get to the offseason and start preparing for next season, right?

Wrong. After a thrilling 78-65 win over Iowa, Tennessee was officially into the second round of the tournament. The Vols got a fairly easy win over the No. 6 seed Massachusetts Minutemen. After Mercer pulled off possibly the upset of the tournament over Duke, Tennessee fans were getting excited. Surely they can beat a 14 seed? And that is exactly what they did. Tennessee was into the Sweet Sixteen, and fans of the Big Orange were fired up.

However, after a controversial late offensive foul on Jarnell Stokes, No. 2 seed Michigan got the win and Tennessee’s season was over. It was a magical, unexpected run that nobody could have seen coming, right?

Wrong again.

Fast forward to today, and let’s do a little where-are-they-now with some players from that roster. First off, Jordan McRae. Drafted No. 58 overall by the San Antonio Spurs, then subsequently traded to the Philadelphia 76ers later on draft night. After playing in the NBA Summer League, McRae went to Australia to play with Melbourne United of the National Basketball League. At the end of the 2014-15 NBL season, McRae had stuffed the stat sheet, amassing 19.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game. He was third in scoring and ranked in the top 15 in steals, blocks, and assists.

After the NBL season was over, McRae came back to America to play in the NBA D-League. He was named to the 2016 NBA D-League All-Star Game. But his most impressive accomplishment? On Jan. 26, McRae dropped a D-League record 61 points in an overtime game for the Delaware 87ers. After that, he was called up to join the Phoenix Suns, signed a ten-day contract, and had a pretty impressive NBA debut, scoring 12 points in 25 minutes.

Next up is Josh Richardson. Tennessee fans might not have known much about Richardson before the tournament, but it would be impossible not to know him now. After being forced into playing point guard for the Vols in the 2014-15 season, Richardson was drafted No. 40 overall by the Miami Heat. In late July, Richardson signed a contract with the Heat. The three-year contract is worth about $2.5 million, with the first year fully guaranteed. Richardson has spent most of his time in the NBA playing in Miami, but has also spent a little time with the Heat’s D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Jarnell Stokes is another player from that team that is now in the NBA. After being one of only three players in the nation to average a double-double over the entire season during his junior campaign, Stokes decided to declare early for the NBA Draft and was taken No. 35 overall by the Utah Jazz. However, like McRae, he was also traded on draft night, this time to the Memphis Grizzlies. His rookie season, he went back and forth with the Grizzlies and their D-League affiliate, the Iowa Energy. In November 2015, Stokes was acquired by the Miami Heat in a trade and headed down to South Beach to play with his former teammate, Richardson. Like his first year, Stokes has spent time playing for both the Heat and the Skyforce.

If you kept up with the NCAA tournament last year, the next name might ring a bell: Quinton Chievous. After the 2014 tournament run, he transferred to Hampton University. Hampton got into the 2015 tournament as a 16-seed and, after the play-in game, gave the then-34-0 Kentucky Wildcats a slight scare in the second round.

Another name Vol fans will likely recognize is Darius Thompson. Thompson transferred to Virginia after the Sweet Sixteen run, and after sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, has been phenomenal for the national powerhouse Cavaliers.

Currently there are three players on Tennessee’s roster who were on the 2013-14 team. Senior Armani Moore has become a dynamic player, able to play many different positions, and is giving the Vols a much needed secret weapon this season. He is leading the team in rebounds with 8.2 per game and is second on the team in points, minutes, and steals per game.

Derek Reese, another senior, is one of the taller players Tennessee has. He has seen some meaningful playing time for the Vols the past two seasons. Junior Robert Hubbs III is another dynamic player who can play many different positions and often gives Tennessee a much needed boost.

Moore, Reese and Hubbs III have been regular starters the past two seasons.

So that was a lot of information, but it all boils down to this one thing. Tennessee making it to the Sweet Sixteen should not have surprised anyone. Why did it?

Well, that question can be answered with two words:

Cuonzo Martin.

Now, before you go and call me or any other Tennessee fan with this point of view a racist or anything like that, hear me out. I am not denying that some fans wanted Martin gone because of race. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that there were. And even more unfortunate than that is the fact there are going to be racist fans anywhere he goes in the nation, even Berkeley, California. However, the national narrative since he left Tennessee was that the primary reason Vol fans wanted him gone was because of race.

And that is just about as far from the truth as you could get.

To understand a little better why a petition that drew 40,000 signatures to get rid of him was created, let’s take a look back at Tennessee basketball pre-Cuonzo Martin.

Bruce Pearl was the head coach of the Volunteers for six seasons prior to Martin’s arrival. While at Tennessee, Pearl had some astounding accomplishments. He had incredible players on his rosters such as C.J. Watson, Wayne Chism, Tyler Smith, and Chris Lofton. He led the team to NCAA tournament appearances in each of his six years as head coach, and also earned the first ever No. 1 ranking in school history. He coached some of the most exciting college basketball games of the decade, gaining wins over No. 1 Memphis and No. 1 Kansas. Possibly the most memorable win in Pearl’s coaching history, however, was over the Texas Longhorns. Chris Lofton hit an incredibly deep three-pointer over Kevin Durant late in the second half to take the lead. The game went to overtime, and Tennessee ended up winning 111-105.

The accolades for Pearl go on and on. Multiple-time SEC Coach of the Year, and in 2008, National Coach of the Year. But what Pearl really brought to Rocky Top was an excitement for basketball at a football school when football was not exactly doing too hot. He always had an incredible amount of energy, and the fans fed off of that.

In 2007, he and some of his players attended a Lady Vols game and stood in the student section. He and the players painted themselves in orange and white body paint spelling out “V-O-L-S,” and there isn’t a more perfect example of what Pearl was as a coach.

After an NCAA investigation into recruiting violations, Pearl was fired and Cuonzo Martin was eventually hired as the head coach.

I have lived in Knoxville all my life, and am in my sophomore year here at the University of Tennessee, and I have learned many things about Tennessee sports over the years. One thing I have confirmed to be true is that Vol fans are some of the wildest people you will ever meet. They are absolutely insane.

When a lot of crazy people band together, it can have massive consequences. This specific time period was not a good one for Tennessee fans. A couple years after Pearl came to the university, the football team had gotten rid of long-time head coach Philip Fulmer, and nearly a decade of mediocrity was to follow. But the basketball team gave fans a distraction from that. When Lane Kiffin left for USC after only one season, Knoxville was in turmoil. His replacement, Derek Dooley, didn’t do much to remedy that (except for ruin orange pants for every Vol fan ever). This coupled with the firing of Pearl left Vol fans raving for some sort of excitement, and unfortunately Martin just didn’t bring that.

And that is the main reason why Martin was run out of town.

His teams were not short on talent. But after two years of early SEC Tournament and NIT losses, Vol fans were left wanting back what they had grown accustomed to. Many fans felt that Pearl should not have been fired in the first place and wanted to hire him back. And, as was evident when Donnie Tyndall, Martin’s replacement, was fired, throngs of Vol fans believed that not only would Pearl want to come back to Knoxville, but that the administration could make it happen.

Instead, what they got was the single best thing that could possibly happen.

Enter Rick Barnes. After spending 17 years at Texas (including the one where Lofton hit a three from the Tennessee River over Durant), Barnes found himself without a job for mainly the same reason Martin did. The fans weren’t satisfied with him.

However, the difference between Barnes and Martin was that Barnes put Texas basketball on the map. Tennessee basketball had already been put on the map, and it was not at the hands of Martin. At Texas, Barnes took his teams to the NCAA tournament 16 times out of the 17 years he was there. In 2003, he went to the Final Four.

Unfortunately for Texas fans, the last three years of Barnes’ tenure were marked by losses in the second and third rounds of the NCAA tournament, and a crushing loss in the first round of the CBI tournament in 2013. That particular season was one of only two losing seasons for Barnes as a head coach anywhere. So, he and the university parted ways. He wasn’t without a job for long, however. A mere two days after being fired, Barnes was hired as the head coach at Tennessee.

While this first year of the Barnes era hasn’t been what many had hoped, his team has shown some promise for the years to come. Freshmen Admiral Schofield, Shembari Phillips, and Kyle Alexander have all seen the court many times this year with Schofield earning a spot as a regular starter. Barnes has turned senior Kevin Punter into one of the best offensive players in the country. This offseason, under the guidance of his new coach, Punter completely changed his shot—and his game. Like Richardson the year prior, Punter was forced into being the point guard for the Vols, and is currently one of the top ten scorers in the nation, averaging over 23 points per game.

Although Tennessee has the smallest average height in the SEC, it is sixth in rebounds and fifth in blocks. The Vols are a scrappy, rough team that plays hard every minute of every game, and much of the credit goes to Barnes. Standing at a mere 6-foot-4, Moore had 18 points and 13 rebounds in a win against one of the best teams in the paint in the nation, the Kentucky Wildcats.

Although Tennessee is losing four key players to graduation this year in Punter, Moore, Reese, and Devon Baulkman, the recruits Barnes is already drawing look very promising. The Vols are building up on positions they need with forwards Grant Williams and John Fulkerson. Williams is rated by ESPN as a four-star recruit and the No. 25 power forward in the nation. Along with fellow four-stars Jalen Johnson and Kwe Parker and legacy player Jordan Bone (the younger brother of former Vol Josh Bone), the Vols will be adding some much needed youth and height to their roster.

So, Tennessee basketball is not exactly in the best of places at this very moment. But Barnes is a proven winner. Were Vol fans wrong for running Martin out of town? Absolutely not. They had grown accustomed to regularly being one of the best teams in the nation with a head coach that was just as nuts as the fans were. Martin brought neither of those things to the table, and ultimately found out the hard way just how insane the fans in Knoxville are.

This time, Tennessee fans need not worry. The road ahead is very bright. Soon, they can be as wild and crazy as they want.

Featured image by Wade Rackley

Edited by Cody McClure