When Tennessee hired Cuonzo Martin to replace Bruce Pearl, I thought it was a good choice at the time.
No, Martin wasn't Bruce Pearl. It would have been almost impossible for any coach to duplicate what Pearl did for Tennessee basketball.
Pearl gave his team freedom to take 3-pointers. He loved a fast-breaking game with speed and quickness. Players loved playing for him. He was coaching a player-friendly game.
Martin was a disciplinarian. He honed in on emphasizing defense, rebounding and most of all, toughness. In his three years, they have been grinders, favoring a half-court offense. His style is close to opposite to the one Pearl won with.
“Toughness has got to be what we are as a program,'' Martin said. “That's our brand, our way of life.''
This is his third season and a quest for his first NCAA Tournament appearance is in peril. If they fail to make the tournament, it's likely next season will be even worse.
They lose seniors Jerrone Maymon, Jordan McRae, Antonio Barton and D'Montre Edwards. It is highly likely that junior Jarnell Stokes will enter the NBA Draft, although his offensive game is lacking at the NBA level. He has difficulty getting his shots off now. At 6-8, NBA players will make him eat even more attempts to muscle the ball up and in.
If Stokes does go, the Vols will lose 54 points and 25.7 rebounds a game. That would leave only 19.1 points and 13.6 rebounds returning from this year's team.
So, does Tennessee Athletics Director Dave Hart want to watch another disappointing season? He did not hire Martin and to allow him to coach another season will be putting the program further behind in what has become a weak basketball conference.
No. 3 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky are the only two SEC teams in the current Top 25.
The fan interest that Pearl created has waned. Pearl is the elephant in the room. Fans don't see the passion, the pizzazz they did when Pearl was calling the shots. As an AD, Hart cannot ignore the deterioration. Fans mean money. Athletics Directors understand the money part of sports.
Tuesday's home loss to Florida was a telling sign.
The Gators beat the Vols at their own game. They out-rebounded the Vols, 39-32. They retrieved 18 offensive rebounds. They smothered loose balls. They forced turnovers. In crunch time, it was the Gators that took over the game.
Florida had lost six of the last seven games in Thompson-Boling Arena. The Gators arrived with their teeth sharpened.
“We knew we had to go in there and bleed and battle and fight and bite and scratch to come up with some loose balls,'' said Florida's Patric Young.
Vols fans had to know their team was in trouble when it made 62.5 percent of its shots in the first half, yet led by only one point. Still they had chances to win the game, but saw Florida close with a flurry and take a nine-point win back home.
It dropped Tennessee's RealTimeRPI.com ranking to No. 49. For comparison, Vanderbilt's RPI slipped to No. 85 after losing at home to Arkansas. The Commodores are playing with seven scholarship players. They also have a home win over the Vols.
The Vols have seven regular season games remaining. They are an unimpressive 15-9 overall, 6-5 in SEC play. If I were on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, the Vols would need to run the table going into the SEC Tournament.
That would give them 22 wins. It is doable if they play to their potential. It's a big IF.
Road trips to Missouri, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn are mixed in with home games against Georgia, Vanderbilt and Missouri. Not impossible by any means.
Bracketologist Jerry Palm predicts Florida and Kentucky are the only safe SEC teams when it comes to making the Big Dance.
“Everybody else, they all could miss,'' Palm said.
I think deciding Martin's future is simple. If he fails to make the NCAA Tournament, Hart needs to make a change.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at email@example.com.