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Comparing Cuonzo Martin to Expectations

Sorry, Will.

Martin gets as much credit as you like for rocking a bowtie.
Martin gets as much credit as you like for rocking a bowtie.

You should probably start here for comparison's sake.

It's fair to say that Bruce Pearl is the best coach Tennessee's seen in the last quarter-century. This isn't an argument for Bruce Pearl, but it is an argument for the idea of having a higher standard than what we've seen over the last three years. Let's break it down by section.

The Unrequited Back-In (or, How I Learned to Need the 8-1 Finish)

Okay, so I get the idea of NIT berths being something that doesn't look like the end of the world. However, let's talk missed opportunities. Hunter fortunately did my work for this year, so I'll graciously link to it here. With that being said, stop me if you see a theme:

  • 2011-12: open 2-2 with close losses to Memphis and Duke, lose at Oakland, at home to Austin Peay, on the road against College of Charleston, go 5-1 with another loss to Memphis (but beat Florida), then go 2-5 in SEC play before closing at an 8-1 clip then failing to do anything in the SEC Tournament (bounced by Ole Miss)
  • 2012-13: open 4-3 with close losses to Georgetown and Virginia (let's not talk about those offensive showings), go 4-1 with another loss to Memphis, open 1-4 in SEC play, float at 3-3 after that (including a home loss to Georgia), then close on a 9-1 clip (beating Florida) followed by failing to do anything in the SEC Tournament (beat Mississippi State, lose to Alabama)
  • 2013-14: open 3-2 with a loss to UTEP, go 6-2 the rest of the non-conference way (beating Virginia and Xavier but losing to NC State and Xavier), then spend SEC play alternating wins with losses save a two-game win streak against Ole Miss and Alabama, setting up a potential 8-1 close if Tennessee wins out. No word yet on how the SEC Tournament will go.

One year? Sure. Two years? Weird coincidence. Three years? We got a pattern on our hands, and optically it's easier to just not be good and set the NIT as a goal then to spend the better part of two months frantically refreshing Bubble Watch to see where Tennessee's chances stood. All credit to ESPN, though: they got rid of it this year so we don't have to do that.

Butts in Seats (or Cash Rules Everything I Do)

Again, Will did the work; I'm just repackaging it. TBA is the sixth-largest arena in college basketball at 21,678 seats. Let's do some math!
  • Wade Houston's average attendance: 15,697 (72.4% capacity)
  • Kevin O'Neill's average attendance: 14,518 (66.9% capacity)
  • Jerry Green's average attendance: 15,562 (71.8% capacity)
  • Buzz Peterson's average attendance: 13,403 (61.8% capacity)
  • Bruce Pearl's average attendance: 19,354 (89.3% capacity)
  • Cuonzo Martin's average attendance: 16,685 (77.0% capacity)
Yes, Martin's attendance is still better than previous, non-Pearl coaches. However, I'm less concerned about how he stacks up against them and more concerned about how he stacks up against venue capacity.

We learned under Pearl that TBA can get close to capacity. (Even I'm not so optimistic as to expect an endless string of sellouts.) The attendance last Tuesday against Florida was over 1,000 people less than the average attendance under Bruce Pearl. More people means more people buying tickets means more butts in seats means better things for the athletic department as a whole. The potential's there; remove Pearl from the equation and you'd be tempted to think otherwise, but at this point we have direct knowledge against that.

Follow the Recruiting

You know how when we were building a case against Derek Dooley we pointed to recruiting as a problem? This might be related:

  • Recruiting rankings under Bruce Pearl (from 2005-06 to 2010-11, in order): >25, 6, >25, 7, >25, 9
  • Recruiting rankings under Cuonzo Martin (2011-12 to 2013-14): 46, 43, 36
Of note is that the top ends of these classes haven't changed much: we know Jarnell Stokes, we know Robert Hubbs, and yeah, that 2011-12 class was kind of weird and in flux. However, Pearl was able to at least roll in one great class every other year, which - Kentucky excepted - is needed to stay competitive. Pearl's classes also had depth of talent, which has been the problem here. How many pieces have you read this season asking who else is going to show up beyond Jordan McRae and Stokes?

Here's something else: since 2011, only three teams haven't placed a class in the Rivals Top 30: Ole Miss, Auburn, and Tennessee. Yes, his classes are getting better, but it's too little and too late.

It gets worse if you look at 2013-14, which is yet another class Tennessee doesn't have in the top 30. However, Kentucky, Florida, LSU, Missouri, Alabama, and Vanderbilt all have top 30 classes right now, meaning the following:
  • Two teams have placed every class in the Rivals Top 30 since 2011-12: Kentucky (duh) and Florida.
  • Five additional teams have placed two classes or more in the Rivals Top 30 since 2011-12: LSU, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, and Vanderbilt.
  • Four other teams have placed just one class in the Rivals Top 30 since 2011-12: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Georgia.

Kind of makes sense why Tennessee's been struggling in SEC play now, no?

Okay, so what?

If Tennessee's destined for a slow slide back to the pre-Pearl, vaguely-NCAA Tournament-ish days, well, okay. However: we've seen what it's like to be good and be consistently good, and the rest of the SEC is at worst catching up to where Tennessee's been. The longer this lasts, the harder it'll be to come back.

I don't know if Bruce Pearl is the answer, but I'm pretty sure that Tennessee doesn't want to be a middle-of-the-pack SEC team. It's possible to win at a NCAA tournament level on a regular basis at Tennessee - Pearl proved that. He doesn't need to be the guy who proves it again, but at this point there's a growing body of evidence it won't be Cuonzo Martin who proves that, either.