Eight Games, Pt. 5: Sweet Virginia


Around midway through Martin’s third season at Tennessee, a pattern beyond the poor non-conference outings -> good SEC run of play stretch began to show. Several times, genuinely out of nowhere, Tennessee would just beat the hell out of a team that people figured would be a tough test. It wouldn’t be some sort of deal where they went on a 14-0 run to stretch the lead at the end, either. They’d come out and utterly demolish whoever was on the other end of the court. I didn’t coin this at the time, but let’s call it the Surprise Cuonzo Crush. I’d qualify it as this:

  1. Any game where Tennessee won by 15 or more;
  2. Against either an SEC opponent or a non-conference opponent where Tennessee was favored by 5 points or less (or were underdogs).

By my count, this happened eight times during Cuonzo Martin’s tenure at Tennessee. Six of them were in this 2013-14 season alone. For whatever reason, Cuonzo Martin had a team that would show up once out of every five games and send a team home with, like, a 38-point loss. It made no sense at all, because simultaneously, this same roster would post loss after loss to teams that finished #103 (UTEP), #62 (NC State), #110 (Texas A&M, twice), #109 (Vanderbilt), and #69 (Missouri) in KenPom. For every unbelievable blowout, there was an unbelievable blow-up in return.

During this season, the infamous petition for Bruce Pearl’s rehiring began to circulate, which only made players angrier and more distant to the fans. For some of these games, the atmosphere in the arena was so strange and unusual, and it’s still unlike anything else I’ve experienced at a Tennessee game. Fans seemed to have a firm upper limit on how happy they could feel with these blowouts.

So that’s how a power conference team that closed the season in the KenPom top 15 with an 11-7 conference record and 21 wins overall barely snuck in the back door of the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, this Tennessee team – the one we just watched beat Virginia 87-52 and the one that would go on to beat LSU by 18, Vanderbilt by 38, Auburn (on the road!) by 28, and Missouri by 27 – barely got in. Because Tennessee simply couldn’t stop blowing easy games and because at season’s end, they did only have two wins over KenPom top 50 opponents. But I have a hypothesis that is probably backed up by the committee themselves: Tennessee made the NCAA Tournament in 2014 because of Virginia, a team they beat by 35 at home.

See, what happened next for Tennessee was just more frustration typical of the Martin era. What happened next for Virginia was that they became one of the five best teams in the entire sport.

After the Tennessee implosion – a game that stood as Virginia’s worst defensive effort of the Bennett era until December 2020 – Virginia suddenly turned the afterburners on. They rose from #42 in KenPom to #4 by season’s end. They would lose on the road to Duke on January 13 and then didn’t lose again for two months. They fully earned their 1 seed after winning both the ACC regular season title and the ACC Tournament. Tennessee exited the December 30 destruction with a win over what they probably imagined was a lower-tier NCAA Tournament team, then when they got to the NCAA Tournament, they realized they’d somehow beaten a top five team by 35 points.

If Virginia had finished somewhere between #22 and #42 (we’ll assume something similar for the RPI, which is what the NCAA formerly used over NET), here’s what Tennessee’s 2014 NCAA Tournament resume would have looked like:

  • Best win over #30-ish Virginia
  • Second-best win over either #44 Arkansas (home) or #59 LSU (road)
  • Two wins over NCAA Tournament teams (Virginia and #52 Xavier, who made the First Four)
  • uh
  • well
  • Four losses to teams outside of the KenPom top 100

Was Tennessee underseeded in this Tournament as an 11? Yeah, of course they were. But when you look at who they beat (this wasn’t a metric used by anyone yet, but Tennessee’s Wins Above Bubble sat 55th-best nationally, which is generally the hallmark of a First Four 11/12 seed), Tennessee’s Tournament status was far from clinched. The Virginia win went from what would normally be a fine win – think Tennessee beating Kansas at home this past season – to one of the biggest home wins in modern Tennessee history.

We all know what happened next, of course. Tennessee received the draw of a lifetime, assuming they could make it out of the First Four. Future 6 seed opponent Massachusetts remains the lowest-ranked 6-seed in KenPom history (#47 at the start of the NCAA Tournament); 3-seed Duke had the 78th-ranked defense in the field. There was a decent chance, particularly if a surprise Duke upset happened, that #21 Iowa – also underseeded, by the way – would be their toughest opponent in the opening weekend.

Tough, it was. Tennessee struggled to get on top of Iowa, trailing 16-4 early and fighting back for the majority of the 40 minutes of regulation. It felt like, yet again, Tennessee was going to disappoint against a non-SEC opponent. Josh Richardson was going to do everything in his power to ensure that didn’t happen.

This became one of the best games of the opening round of the NCAA Tournament despite not being part of the opening round. It went to overtime, Jarnell Stokes went bonkers, and Tennessee advanced with a 78-65 win over Iowa. (Fran McCaffery blowing it in March? No way!) In contrast, the UMass game was over before it even started. One team, to put it simply, was far, far better than the other.

Then the unthinkable happened: Duke actually did lose. 14-seed Mercer sprung an upset, and two days later, Tennessee ended Mercer’s abbreviated Cinderella run with ease, 83-63. On February 15, 2014, Tennessee lost to Missouri to fall to 15-10. A little over a month later, they were in the Sweet Sixteen, playing a 2-seed (Michigan) that they were favored against by a point.

Anyone reading this article knows how this ended. You’ll be spared of the details. After Tennessee’s season ended, Martin and athletic director Dave Hart (who became the AD around five months into Martin’s tenure) had a standoff surrounding a potential contract extension for Martin. You could line up a decent pros and cons list for an extension at this time:

Why Cuonzo Martin Should be Extended:

  • Just took Tennessee back to the Sweet Sixteen after a four-year layoff.
  • Had developed Josh Richardson from a curiosity to a legitimate future pro.
  • 32-20 in SEC play across three seasons, which happens to be better than Bruce Pearl’s 29-20 SEC run over his final three seasons.
  • Ended all three seasons playing their strongest basketball.

Why Cuonzo Martin Shouldn’t be Extended:

  • One NCAA Tournament bid – a First Four appearance with an extremely lucky draw – in three seasons.
  • 32-20 in SEC play, sure…but 28-20 in non-conference play with four losses to teams outside of the KenPom Top 100.
  • 13-19 in games decided by 6 points or fewer.
  • An offense that never finished better than 160th in eFG% and a style of play that failed to excite fans.
  • Ten losses to teams outside of the KenPom Top 100. (Tennessee from 2001-02 to 2010-11: eight total.)

So…it was complicated. And it became more complicated. Hart and Martin had this sort of passive-aggressive public battle for two weeks, and eventually, it seemed like both sides were going to compromise on a deal that made sense for Martin. It seemed like Martin was going to be Tennessee’s coach for, at minimum, a few more years.

Then he snuck out the back door to the University of California on a warm Tuesday in April.

Once again, Tennessee was in the coaching search wilderness. National media obliterated Tennessee, Tennessee’s fans, Tennessee’s culture, Dave Hart, and everything they could find to make fun of. Look at this successful coach who left you! You peasants couldn’t stand having him here, could you? Mention the names Dana O’Neil or Myron Medcalf to a Tennessee fan in 2021 and you may still receive a 15-minute dissertation on The Petition and why Tennessee fans were right to not like Martin.

Tennessee had a few different directions to turn to. There were some realistic, interesting options they could go with. Dave Hart took the steering wheel, pressed the gas on the Tennessee wagon, and drove it straight into the garage door.

To be continued on Thursday.

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