Vols Basketball: Expectations Too High?


Tennessee Volunteers head coach Cuonzo Martin during the second half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt won 64-60. im Brown-USA TODAY Sports

The 2013-2014 basketball season was supposed to be the season the Cuonzo Martin-led Tennessee Volunteers broke out of their post-Bruce Pearl slump and make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. This season was supposed to be the year a senior-laden team gelled together and brought March Madness back to Knoxville.

Thus far, the Vols have been a giant disappointment. UT sits at 15-9 after a hard-fought loss to No. 3 Florida Tuesday night, and they are once again on the bubble for the Big Dance. This team consistently starts three seniors and two juniors and appear to have one of the more talented teams in the SEC on paper. But they have yet to consistently show that talent. It’s another down year for the SEC, and with this many mediocre teams, only Florida and Kentucky have asserted themselves as worthy of a NCAA berth.

Now, I don’t think expecting a team like this to make the NCAA Tournament to be out of the question. But have we as Volunteer basketball fans been spoiled by the Bruce Pearl era? Are our expectations now too lofty, and are we vilifying Cuonzo Martin because we miss Pearl?

Here’s some history to put the current regime into perspective:

Since Don DeVoe compiled a 204-137 record and made it to the NCAA Tournament 6 times (including 5 consecutive times) during his tenure from 1978-1989, the Vols never achieved that same level of success in the 16 years before Pearl took over. The Vols cycled through 4 coaches (Wade Houston, Kevin O’Neill, Jerry Green, and Buzz Peterson) in those 16 years, only making the Tournament 4 times (and all of those under Jerry Green). Jerry Green (89-36) and, to a lesser extent, Peterson (61-59) were the only coaches to even have winning records while at UT during those 16 years.

Enter Bruce Pearl. All 6 of his teams made the NCAA Tournament, and only his last team (19-15) failed to eclipse the 20 win plateau. Pearl took the Vols to previously unknown heights, reaching No. 1 in the AP Poll in 2008 and leading the Vols to their first Elite 8 in school history in 2010. UT basketball had never enjoyed this much success, and fans were elated.

Tennessee Vols guard Jordan McRae (52) passes the ball against South Carolina Gamecocks forward/center Desmond Ringer (32) during the first half at Thompson-Boling Arena. Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Pearl was fired following the 2010-11 season, and that whole situation needn’t be rehashed right now. Cuonzo Martin was hired, in essence, to be the anti-Pearl. The UT administration wanted someone who wouldn’t endanger the program further, and Martin has excelled in that regard. What he hasn’t excelled in, though, is living up to those elevated expectations Pearl left behind.

Martin’s first year as head coach went better than almost anyone could have predicted. Martin took over a team that saw the majority of its offensive firepower leave with Pearl, and the talent cupboard was essentially bare. Regardless, Martin helped lead the Vols to a 19-15 record, identical to the record Pearl had his last season. The only difference between Martin’s first season and Pearl’s last was this team didn’t get a berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Martin then led the Vols to a 20-13 record and saw a slight improvement from his first team. Despite this improvement, the postseason result was the same: the Vols ended up in the NIT and not the NCAA Tourney. So far this season, this team is not in much better shape than the previous two Martin teams. UT sits at 15-9 and likely must win out or perform very well in the SEC Tournament to hope to make it back to the NCAA Tournament this season.

All of this history leads to one question: Do Vol fans expect too much from their basketball team now? Pearl took the UT basketball program to new places, heights not even Ray Mears reached back in the 70’s. Pearl went 145-61 in his 6 seasons as Tennessee’s head coach and averaged over 24 wins per season, obliterating Mears’ and DeVoe’s 18.5 wins per season. If Pearl had remained the coach at UT, there’s no telling how many records he could have broken.

Many UT fans still love Pearl (as you can see from this article on Outkick the Coverage) and would love nothing more than to see him back. They want him back so badly that some fans are vilifying Martin and rooting for this team’s failure just so Martin will be fired.

Alabama forward Nick Jacobs (15) knocks down a shot by Tennessee guard A.J. Davis (21) during the second half at Coleman Coliseum. Tennessee won 76-59. Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

Well, that strikes a nerve with me. Rooting against “your team” just to see a coach go has never been my thing, and I will never do it. It is my opinion that the UT fanbase is now expecting too much and are simply lashing out because they miss their favorite coach. I can sympathize with that. I too miss Pearl. I believe, however, that expectations may be inflated from the Pearl era.

Martin came in and got a scrappy team to over-perform his first season and fell just short. His second team under-performed just a tad and fell just short again. This team is comprised of basically the same players as those previous two teams, so what made us all expect any different for this team?

Jordan McCrae is a scorer, but he is also streaky. Trae Golden’s departure has hurt the team more than anticipated, and Antonia Barton has not been the plug-and-play point guard many envisioned. And I truly believe this team is missing 5-star freshman Robert Hubbs more than anyone thought too. I believe this team wanted to depend on him to be a viable scoring option either starting or off the bench, but his injury limited him early in the season and has now caused him to miss the entire season.

What does all this mean? It means maybe we as a fanbase need to step back and see where we stand in history and look at what has affected this season. Preseason hopes and expectations didn’t foresee the attrition this team has experienced, and the Pearl era may have skewed our beliefs of what a Tennessee basketball team is capable of.

Martin may shoulder some of the blame for the disappointment of this season, but it would be extremely unfair to place it all on him.

Statistics came from UT Sports and sports-reference.com