Tonight’s game against Missouri is more than just a showdown between two of the conference’s better teams. The Vols will face off against former head coach Cuonzo Martin, the man responsible for the team’s most recent NCAA tournament appearance.
After a tumultuous 2013 regular season, frustrated Vols fans started a petition to relieve then-head coach Cuonzo Martin of his duties in order to bring in the soon-to-be reinstated Bruce Pearl. The petition was not to be taken lightly as it garnered over 36,000 signatures.
The men’s basketball team had just come off of an underachieving season that included frustrating losses against UTEP, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M (both games), and Florida (three games). They barely made it into the 2014 NCAA tournament — having to face off against Iowa in a playoff game — and they barely won that game after forcing overtime.
But things soon changed as March Madness progressed and the Vols kept winning. A couple of major upsets in other games gave the Vols an easy path, facing off against Mercer and UMass, until they lost a thriller to Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen.
All of a sudden, Martin was wanted again — for the most part. Despite the tournament run and posting the third winningest record in the SEC (behind only Calipari and Donovan) since he was hired, fans still wanted him gone.
As a result, Martin decided to leave Knoxville and headed west to the University of California-Berkley (Cal). It didn’t take him long to find success, obtaining the fourth seed in the NCAA tournament during his second year before getting upset by 13-seed Hawaii in the first round.
Martin posted another 20-win season in 2016, but could only get his team to the NIT. Before the 2017 season began, Martin resigned from Cal and took the head coaching job at Missouri after Kim Anderson was fired.
It was a more than questionable decision. Martin posted a 62-39 record in three seasons at Cal that included back-to-back 20-win seasons and one NCAA tournament appearance. Missouri had recently come off an 8-24 season in 2016.
Martin hit the ground running, loading up on the forward position after grabbing the nation’s number two player in Michael Porter, Jr., the 25th player in Jontay Taylor, and the 42nd player in Jeremiah Tilmon. This recruiting success vaulted Mizzou into the top five of the 2017 recruiting rankings and they currently boast a 12-5 record while sitting at ninth in the SEC with a 2-2 record in conference play.
Martin’s fingerprints are all over this team. The improvement in play is obvious, just look at Mizzou’s overall stats from 2016 to now. Martin has the Tigers first in the SEC when it comes to 3-point shooting percentage, fourth in field goal percentage and eighth in points per game. Mizzou ranked 14th, 14th, and 13th in those respective categories last season.
And that’s the scary part - the fact that Martin has this program rolling so efficiently on offense. His background is defense and fortunately for Mizzou, he has that side of the ball rolling as well.
Martin has the Tigers fourth in the SEC in overall defense, fourth in allowed points per game, and seventh in rebounds. They ranked ninth, 11th, and eighth in those respective categories last season.
While the improvement in the win column is extremely impressive, the Tigers have benefitted from an easy first half when it comes to their schedule. They are 0-1 against ranked teams and have gone just 2-2 over their last four games, including a bad loss at home to a sub-par Illinois team. It remains to be seen what will happen as the Tigers navigate through a very tough second half of their schedule that includes four games against ranked teams.
The challenge begins tonight as the Tigers face off against the 21st-ranked Vols at home. It will be a fun reunion to watch and hopefully one in which the Vols come out on top.