Bruce Pearl was always going to be a tough act to follow. His teams were too successful,1 his energy and boundless optimism too beloved,2 and the NCAA-mandated reasons for his departure too trivial3 for him to ever fade quietly away. Cuonzo Martin started promisingly enough, taking a team missing seven out of the prior year's top ten contributors (and the top three) and embarking on a furious finish to the season, narrowly missing out on an NCAA tournament berth. He even dazzled in recruiting, convincing Memphis-native and seemingly Kentucky-bound five-star recruit Jarnell Stokes to head to Knoxville. But in the first two years of his tenure, every time Tennessee seemed poised to break through, his team instead fell short, often in the most agonizing fashion possible. With NCAA tournament hopes on the line, Tennessee fell to Ole Miss 77-72 in overtime in the 2012 SEC Tournament, and followed that by losing to fellow bubble-team Alabama 58-48 in the 2013 SEC Tournament.
Entering year three, even the most ardent of Martin fans had to admit that the season would be NCAA Tournament or bust. Potential lottery pick Jarnell Stokes spurned the NBA draft and returned to Knoxville, adding significant talent to a senior-laden roster featuring shooter Jordon McRae and underrated dynamo Jeronne Maymon. The off-season loss of point guard Trae Golden was balanced by the arrival of Memphis-transfer point guard Antonio Barton. With talent, experience, and a manageable SEC schedule,4 the table was set for Martin to lead Tennessee back to the NCAA Tournament, wiping away the disappointment of previous years and establishing his own legacy.
Well, they've been tough the last few years, so surely we'll rebound against a middling maybe not.
But then the completely unexpected occurs, and this team is finally putting it all together. Talent! Experience! Everything is coming together, and at the most opportune time: conference play is right around the corner, and oh no not again.
Finally, it's too much, and even the court jester begs for his return: It's Time to Bring Bruce Pearl Back to Tennessee (Clay Travis).
With seven games left on the schedule, does Martin have anything left to change the narrative?
1. Tennessee NCAA Tournament appearances: 13 in 66 years before Pearl; 6 in 6 years during; 0-2 after.↩
3. Frank Haith, anyone?↩
4. Only Kentucky, Florida, and Missouri were expected to be competitive in the preseason.↩