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Rick Barnes, Bruce Pearl, Cuonzo Martin, and the Search for Success

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Pearl and Barnes are set to square off in the SEC Tournament's first game while Cuonzo looks forward to the NCAA Tournament with a pair of potential lottery picks. Can all three find success at their respective stops going forward?

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

As was the case around this time two years ago, chances are you've made up your mind about Cuonzo Martin.  I'm not necessarily here to try to change it.  But I do think there are a couple of points worth examining two years down the road in that conversation.

As we enter championship week Cal is 22-9 (12-6).  They're 24th in both polls, 22nd in KenPom, 14th in RPI, and currently a five seed in the Bracket Matrix.  But the line most familiar to Tennessee fans is what they've done in the last month:  sitting at 14-5 (4-5) entering the month of February, Cal won eight of its last nine games.  They won three road games in that stretch, beat #11 Oregon by 20 in Berkeley, and won those eight games by an average margin of 13 points.

These end of season runs for Cuonzo have happened enough times at enough schools that they have to be considered part of his coaching identity.  His first year at Cal was much more of a roller coaster:  10-1 start, then lost eight of the next nine, then won five straight, then lost five of six to end the regular season.  But look beyond that first year in Berkeley, and you've got a strong trend:

YEAR STARTED ENDED AVG MARGIN CONF TOURNEY POSTSEASON
2016 California 14-5 (4-5) 8-1 13 TBD TBD
2014 Tennessee 16-11 (7-7) 4-0 25 Lost to #1 Florida in semis Sweet 16
2013 Tennessee 11-10 (3-6) 8-1 10 Lost in quarterfinals NIT 2 seed
2012 Tennessee 10-12 (2-5) 8-1 10 Lost in quarterfinals in OT NIT 1 seed
2011 Missouri St 17-6 (9-3) 6-1 9 Lost in finals NIT 3 seed

In a tournament sport, opinions about the quality of a season or a coach can hinge on narrow margins.  Two years ago Cuonzo Martin was at maximum heat after an overtime loss at Texas A&M on February 22, and two points from Tennessee's second ever Elite Eight on March 28.  It remains his only NCAA Tournament appearance, though not for long.  But his last team at Missouri State and his first two in Knoxville were bubble casualties on Selection Sunday.  If any of those teams could have found one more win?  If Missouri State doesn't lose by four in the MVC finals?  If his first team in Knoxville finds a way to win just one of the three overtime games they lost?  If his second shoots anything better than 3 of 11 at the free throw line in a 37-36 loss at Georgetown?  If three tiny things go differently, Cuonzo Martin isn't just the SEC coach with the most wins in his first three years this century other than John Calipari and Bruce Pearl.  He's the guy who's made four straight NCAA Tournaments, and no matter what else happens there, he's probably still coaching in Knoxville.

You can what if anything, of course, and the what if Cuonzo has to answer is always, "What if his teams didn't start so slow?"  For the first time, this season he answered it well enough to avoid the bubble, though if the familiar 8-1 finish was more like 6-3 then maybe they're still a little sweaty.  Either way, this isn't Tennessee's problem anymore.

The Vols have their own what if, as every season does.  If Kevin Punter had stayed healthy, maybe this team comes to the SEC Tournament a day later with NIT hopes still alive.  And, in an interesting twist to the story, it will be Bruce Pearl on the other sideline tomorrow night in the tournament's play-in game.  Auburn has more what ifs this season than the Vols, likewise losing their best player, only earlier and not the year's only casualty.  Rick Barnes made the NCAA Tournament 16 times in 17 years, but his first Vol squad will finish with the worst record since the Wade Houston era if Tennessee loses to Auburn.  Bruce Pearl did everything but walk on water in six years in Knoxville, but is 26-39 (9-27) in two years at Auburn.  Nothing has been easy for either.

You probably still would, then and now, take Bruce Pearl or Rick Barnes over Cuonzo Martin.  It's true the Vols aren't in a better place right now than they would have been had Cuonzo stayed, and it's also true they were able to land a better hire in his absence after one year of Donnie Tyndall.  Cuonzo still has plenty to prove, in both December and in the postseason.

But something we may not have given enough thought to a couple years ago?  Cuonzo is also less of a finished product than the two coaches who will fight for survival tomorrow night.

Barnes is 61 and in his 29th season as head coach.  Pearl is 55 and in his 12th year on the division one level, plus nine years at Southern Indiana and a three year show cause.  Cuonzo is 44 and in only his eighth season as a head coach.  And while both the late season finish and its necessity have become his thing, every coach's legacy is ultimately written in postseason play.  If he can get his teams away from the bubble, we'll see if he can duplicate the success he had in the bracket in his only previous appearance.  We'll learn a lot more about the kind of coach he can be in the games that truly matter, and in turn if his trajectory will continue upward.

Going forward, Barnes faces a continued rebuild with the loss of four seniors in Knoxville.  Pearl will bring in a five star and four star with the nation's 22nd ranked recruiting class and hope for better luck in year three.  Cuonzo only signed one player last cycle, a four star from Josh Richardson country, but has only one senior contributing this season.  Freshmen Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb may both be lottery picks, so we'll see where it goes from here.  But in hindsight Cuonzo has also worked with more talent than he's usually given credit for, and not just this season.  The 2014 Vol squad started three NBA players, something we haven't seen in Knoxville in decades.  The talent he works with speaks to his early season struggles and late season surges as well.

Barnes still has the best career, Pearl the best in Knoxville.  Cuonzo is clearly having a better year this season.  Who has the brightest future?  That's a more difficult question to answer than we might have thought.  I hope the answer is all of them.