Eight Games, Pt. 5: Sweet Virginia

Before

Cuonzo Martin was the head coach of the Missouri State team Tennessee had struggled with so much earlier in the 2010-11 season. Martin’s Missouri State teams had a couple of main identities from a stats perspective:

  1. They were excellent three-point shooters;
  2. They rarely turned the ball over;
  3. They owned the defensive boards.

If Martin was able to accomplish all three at Tennessee, his tenure should go fairly well. Missouri State nearly made the Tournament in 2010-11 and probably should have. Martin was also hoping to give Tennessee a more disciplined feel to their game. (Tell me if you’ve heard this one before.) Entering Martin’s first season at Tennessee, expectations were very low. I remember Wes Rucker specifically saying it would be a fine enough season for Tennessee if they broke .500. Not in SEC play, but for the whole season. Tennessee fans were willing to give Martin time to figure it out.

He needed it. Martin’s first Tennessee team had a couple of impressive losses early on (10 points to Duke, double-overtime to Memphis), but that then proceeded to become a road loss to Oakland and a horrifying home loss to Austin Peay where Tennessee gave up a 10-0 run to end the game. When SEC play finally began, Tennessee sat at 7-7 and 10th out of 12 SEC teams in KenPom’s ratings. .500 overall really would be miraculous. And yet: they very nearly played their way into the NCAA Tournament.

A home win over a very good Florida team provided a brief respite from what turned into a 9-11, 1-4 SEC start. It did seem like this season was simply going to be very, very bad. But the team kept trying, kept fighting, and out of nowhere, it turned into wins. A 12-12 Tennessee would go on the road and beat a top 10 Florida team. Then they’d come back home and beat Arkansas by 19. And then it was the final day of the SEC regular season, Tennessee would beat Vanderbilt in front of a near-sellout crowd, and Cuonzo Martin had turned 9-11, 1-4 into 18-13, 10-6 (2nd in the SEC).

The next season was…well, almost the exact same. This Tennessee roster had a hair more hype (with 62% of scoring returning and Jarnell Stokes embarking on his first full season with Tennessee), but it was almost immediately halted by a 17-point loss to Oklahoma State. In the midst of Tennessee football’s endless 2012 coaching search, the basketball program attempted to distract fans by playing two of the worst basketball games in modern history.

Just like that, the air was out of the balloon yet again. They were 11-10, 3-6 in the SEC when they hit the road to play South Carolina in mid-February. Again, Tennessee rattled off a bunch of out-of-nowhere SEC wins, including a random blowout of John Calipari’s second-worst Kentucky team by 30. 11-10, 3-6 turned into 19-11, 11-7. They’d miss out on the NCAA Tournament yet again by a hair.

2013-14 was seen as a prove-it season for Martin. It was the best Tennessee roster he’d had to date, with the most experience and the most talent and the most scoring ability. And they still were excruciating for almost all of November and December. The non-conference slate started with a road loss to Xavier and didn’t get any better. That was shortly followed by a loss to a bad UTEP team, then a road loss to Wichita State, then a home loss to NC State. Tennessee was miles away from the NCAA Tournament in December for the third year in a row.

Entering a December 30 battle against Virginia, Tennessee sat at 7-4 with three losses to teams who would end up outside of the KenPom Top 50. Perhaps another SEC schedule recovery was in play – after all, Martin had yet to finish worse than 11-7 in conference play – but this would end up being an extremely weak SEC. Only three teams out of 14 would end up making the field of 68.

Meanwhile, Virginia was figuring out their own path under new(ish) head coach Tony Bennett. Bennett was entering his fifth season at Virginia with one NCAA Tournament bid (and a blowout exit to Florida) to show for it. Bennett had worked magic in turning Washington State into a Sweet Sixteen team, but the same magic had yet to appear at Virginia. The Cavaliers would enter this game #22 in KenPom, which was great, but with losses to VCU and Green Bay. (Not so great.)

Both teams needed a win fairly badly. Tennessee was favored by three; another non-conference loss from Martin’s team would be a brutal blow for already-dwindling fan support. Bennett didn’t appear to be in that much of serious trouble at Virginia, but you would rather win this game than lose it. It set up for a fascinating fixture on New Year’s Eve’s Eve, broadcast on ESPN2 at the same time as the Alamo Bowl between Oregon and Texas. Only one of these games still lingers in my mind.

NEXT PAGE: Out of our heads

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