The only thing more surreal than watching Bruce Pearl and Cuonzo Martin coach against the Vols next year will be watching them coach against each other.
We’ve spilled plenty of words on Martin on this site; most of us have our camps and I’m not here to talk you into mine. But one of the questions we asked between the loss to Michigan and his departure for Berkeley was, “How much could he grow as a coach?”
Martin was 42 then under $1.3 million a year and comes back to the SEC at 45 and $3 million; I’d imagine he’d say things have worked out pretty well. His second year at Cal was the Cuonzo Rorschach: 23-10 and an NCAA Tournament four seed, best in program history, then bounced by Hawaii in the first round after dismissing an assistant coach and losing a starter to injury.
Cuozno has also been a #1 or #2 seed in the NIT three times in the last six years, plus a #3 seed in his final year at Missouri State. I lived in southwest Virginia when Seth Greenberg pulled off that feat in four consecutive years with the Hokies; one of the most frustrating experiences for a program and its fan base is being routinely close. The fact that Martin’s Sweet 16 appearance came via Dayton, just a step or two away from another NIT one seed, often makes “close” a louder voice than that 2014 Sweet 16 or the 2016 regular season in the Cuonzo conversation.
He comes to Mizzou still having to answer the question, a place closer to home and deeper in basketball pedigree than Cal: how much has he grown has a coach, and will close get the last word? His success on the recruiting trail past and present continues to impress, the quickest way to endear yourself to your new fan base, free of the burden of being close somewhere else.
And we know how all of this works, because Cuonzo isn’t the only one to make the conversation about close.
Butch Jones was 45 when he came here and is 49 entering year five. His recruiting rightfully excited us, and his teams have been tantalizingly close. The week before kickoff last August we wrote, “In three seasons, Butch Jones’ greatest crime as Tennessee’s coach has been making good progress while flirting so heavily with great progress that good progress can sometimes feel left out.” In the fourth season it looked for sure like Jones was going to settle down with great progress for about six weeks, and then even good progress slipped through our hands.
Butch and Cuonzo are both solid. And, give or take your view of Cal’s 2016 season, both have yet to be spectacular outside the recruiting trail. Both can frustrate in a press conference (for very different reasons) and both seem truly invested in making champions of life. And both are still young, but not as young as they used to be. Can they continue to grow and evolve? Will they be more than some Tennessee fans have decided is all they’ll ever be?
Can they be more than close?