Cuonzo Martin has Tennessee 18-13, 10-6 in the SEC, and seeded second in the conference tournament. All this from a team that lost two thirds of its scoring, along with its head coach in a swirl of scandal. The Vols were supposed to finish last or next to it in this season's SEC race. My response? That's your SEC Coach of the Year.
Perhaps it's a counterproductive approach, considering I come here to praise Coach Martin, but I've always preferred my Coach of the Year awards as backhanded compliments. Sort of a "Hey, you didn't suck nearly as bad as you were supposed to. Here's a trophy to commemorate your not sucking," kind of approach.
To put it gently, the Vols were supposed to suck. They had a non-conference schedule designed for a team that was a year removed from being an Elite Eight squad. They stared down Duke and Memphis in Maui, and could only come away with a win over Chaminade. They took on Pitt, back before Pitt was exposed as a fraud. They played Memphis again, and then took a break from conference play to face UConn. There were losses to Oakland, Austin Peay, and College of Charleston.
Wait, aren't we supposed to be making the case for Martin as a Coach of the Year? What kind of Coach of the Year drops games to Austin Peay at home?
One that was left with a flaming sack of dog poo by his predecessor, perhaps?
Outside of senior Cameron Tatum, the remainder of Martin's team came into this season with a grand total of two career starts. One of those was by forward Kenny Hall, who ended up getting "suspended indefinitely" last month.
Guard Trae Golden and forward Jordan McRae were the best gets that Bruce Pearl could manage in his last two years in charge, then he decided to play them 18 minutes per game combined. Sure, there was Tobias Harris, but he jumped off the sinking ship when Pearl was pushed. There was never any hope of Martin inheriting him.
Forward Jeronne Maymon transferred in from Marquette, and made a massive impact under Pearl. Yes, that's sarcasm. Nine minutes per game is hardly time to make impact.
A brief comparison of these three players' last two years:
And then there's Jarnell Stokes. A Top 20 recruit according to ESPNU, Stokes had a choice of a top-10 Florida team sorely in need of a strong inside presence, a Memphis team pulling itself off the mat after non-conference losses to tough teams (i.e. NOT Austin Peay, who the Tigers blitzed by 31), or a flailing Volunteer squad.
Those who claimed Cuonzo could never recruit like Bruce were left scratching their heads when the 6-8, 250-pound manchild became a Vol. Martin closed on a recruit that no one expected he could ever reel in, and he's thanked Stokes for his commitment with 25 minutes per game. Stokes has delivered nine points and 7.5 rebounds per game, going for 11 and 14 with five blocks against Vanderbilt this weekend to secure that No. 2 seed.
A team going 10-6 in your conference after going 8-7 outside of it, including the aforementioned losses, may lend the impression that the SEC is down. Which it is, let's not kid ourselves.
The Coach of the Year voters have to weigh whether Tennessee's 10-6 is more of an indictment of their league than Kentucky's 16-0. If it is, Calipari will likely take the award.
But really, isn't this what we expect from Calipari by now? A handful of freshmen dominate the world, then bail to make way for the next class up? Would you rather reward the monstrous corporate assembly line or the small, plucky family business?
A vote for John Calipari is a vote for the One Percent. Call it the Occupy Coach of the Year movement.