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Basketball Vols' draft success points to unlikely source

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The Vols have had three basketball players drafted over the last two seasons, a streak that hasn't happened in nearly three decades. But the coach responsible for this surge in talent may come as a surprise.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Former Tennessee Volunteers shooting guard Josh Richardson was drafted with the 40th overall pick in the 2nd round of the 2015 NBA Draft on Thursday night, marking the third basketball Vol to be drafted in the last two seasons. Jarnell Stokes was taken by the Utah Jazz with the 35th overall pick (and then traded to the Memphis Grizzlies), and Jordan McRae was selected with the 52nd overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2014 NBA Draft.

The basketball Vols have now had as many players drafted over the last two years as the football Vols have. The Tennessee football team had three players taken in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the 2015 NFL Draft saw no Vols drafted for the first time in half a century. The trio of basketball Vols to be drafted in consecutive drafts marks the best such streak for the basketball team since the Vols had at least one player drafted every year from 1979-84.

But looking at the coach responsible for the Vols that have been drafted may come as a surprise to many fans. For all the praise and adoration he received from Vol fans, Bruce Pearl only had one player drafted in his time at UT, and that was Tobias Harris in 2011, Pearl's last (and worst) season. Donnie Tyndall was here and gone for just one season, so it's hard to give much credit to him for Richardson's rise.

No, the coach ultimately responsible for Tennessee's success in the NBA draft is Cuonzo Martin. The same Cuonzo Martin that endured a "Bring Back Bruce" petition in his last season as head coach of the Vols. The same Cuonzo Martin who took the Vols to the Sweet Sixteen that same season and bolted for California shortly after because he never felt like he fit.

Did Martin underachieve at times as Tennessee's head coach? Absolutely. The Vols most likely should've made the NCAA Tournament in his second season, but that also spoke to the state of the SEC at the time as well. Martin lost to teams he shouldn't have, but he was able to lead the Vols on a late run in 2014 and helped them reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2010. And he proved at UT and since that he can recruit.

The best player on UT's roster the last two seasons has been a Cuonzo Martin recruit. Richardson was Tennessee's best player last season, and Armani Moore is arguably the best player on Tennessee's team this upcoming season. If Moore shows the type of growth Stokes, McRae, and Richardson did, there's a good chance the Vols will have their fourth player drafted in three years in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Martin had success developing players at Tennessee and brought in some talented bodies as well. Yes, Bruce Pearl got the ball rolling on Jarnell Stokes, but Martin closed the deal. And McRae was already on the team, but Martin convinced him to stay and helped develop him as a player. Richardson and Moore were both Martin recruits. And since Martin left Tennessee, he's had even more success pulling in recruits. While at Cal, Martin has landed two five-star recruits and another highly-rated four-star player for the Golden Bears.

All of this does not mean Cuonzo Martin is one of the best coaches in the country. It doesn't mean he's a recruiting savant either. All three of his former Vols were drafted in the 2nd round after all. But it does make one wonder if Vol fans were too hasty in wanting Martin run out of town.

Martin was a young coach when he took over as head coach at Tennessee. His only other head coaching experience before coaching the Vols was three years at Missouri State. His first season at Tennessee saw him take a depleted roster and overachieve their way into the NCAA Tournament bubble talk. His second season didn't meet expectations, and his third season saw him essentially do what was expected, neither exceeding nor falling short of expectations.

Martin finished his Tennessee career with a .606 winning percentage, a Sweet Sixteen appearance, and has had three former player drafted from his Tennessee teams. He wasn't Tennessee's greatest coach, but holding on to him might have saved Vol fans and the university the embarrassment of hiring and firing Donnie Tyndall after only a year on the job.

Rick Barnes was a great hire by Athletic Director Dave Hart, but now there are rumors of NCAA violations following Barnes as well. While it appears highly unlikely Barnes will be indicted in the investigations around his former school, the University of Texas, it's bad enough that more misconduct rumors are swirling around the Vols. Martin at least showed that he was as clean as you can be in collegiate athletics and has never had the NCAA come sniffing around him.

Cuonzo Martin isn't the only reason the Vols have had the success in the NBA draft they've had. The players' own work and Tyndall's influence on Richardson definitely play a part, but it does speak to Martin's ability to develop players and cultivate a professional atmosphere around a team. If Tennessee had been more welcoming and held on to Martin, the Vols may not have had as depleted of a roster as they did last season. Any number of things could have gone differently if Martin had stayed at Tennessee.

But one thing is for certain: Cuonzo Martin deserves credit for Tennessee's recent draft success.