Mark Story: Why you should hope Tennessee makes a slam-dunk hoops coaching hire

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistApril 21, 2014 

If you'd like to see Southeastern Conference men's basketball rise from the muck of mediocrity in which it has recently been mired, you might want to do something unnatural for a basketball fan in Kentucky — root for Tennessee.

Now that under-appreciated Cuonzo Martin has exited stage left for California, pull for the Volunteers to make a stellar coaching hire to replace him.

The reason? For SEC hoops to rebuild the credibility it takes to again start getting five, six teams into the NCAA Tournament each season, you need the league programs with the most potential to hit on all cylinders.

Tennessee can be — should be — the third best men's basketball coaching job in the SEC, behind only Kentucky and Florida (as long as Billy Donovan is there).

UT may be thought of as a "football school," but it does not get enough respect for its basketball attributes. Start with a first-rate, on-campus arena. When Thompson-Boling Arena opened in 1987 with a capacity of 24,535, it was a coach-killing white elephant boasting too many seats to keep filled.

However, a smart 2007 renovation downsized the venue to a capacity of 21,678 and added modern amenities such as 32 luxury suites and loge-area seating.

The T-BA is not filled as often as Rupp Arena, but Volunteers fans support basketball in big numbers. From the 2005-06 season — when the charismatic showman Bruce Pearl energized the Vols fan base — through 2012-13, Tennessee was in the top 10 nationally in men's basketball attendance every year.

Even in 2013-14, when midseason unrest was so acute that 40,000 UT fans signed an online petition calling for the dismissal of Martin and the return of Pearl from his NCAA sanctions-mandated exile, UT averaged 15,475 fans at home games.

As unfair as the petition was to Martin, a good coach who lacked Pearl's pizzazz, it did show that a whole lot of people were emotionally invested in Tennessee men's basketball.

From a historical perspective, it is interesting that the two most successful men's hoops coaches in UT history, Pearl and Ray Mears (1963-77), were showmen whose big personalities commanded attention.

If the current Tennessee search turns to former Morehead State and current Southern Mississippi head man Donnie Tyndall, I think the feisty former MSU point guard would bring some of the personality traits needed to animate the UT fan base.

Of the two biggest drawbacks to being head coach at Tennessee, one is the in-state recruiting scenario.

The good news is that, as a state, Tennessee has recently produced its fair share of high-level basketball talent. In the five years from 2010-14, the Volunteer State had 20 players who made the Rivals 150 — the recruiting service's yearly list of the nation's best high school seniors (the state of Kentucky had seven such players in the same period).

Bad news for UT is that only two of those 20 Rivals 150 players ended up with the Volunteers. In fact, 15 of the 20 came from the city of Memphis. Like the University of Kentucky trying to woo recruits in Louisville, Memphis has historically been a tough nut for UT hoops recruiters to crack. Memphis product Jarnell Stokes, a star UT power forward these past three seasons, is an exception that proves the rule.

In recent years, the other big negative for any coach considering Tennessee is that, to paraphrase Steve Spurrier, you can't spell dysfunction without a "U" and a "T."

NCAA violations — and lying about them — sank Pearl (who has now resurfaced at Auburn). At the same time, there might as well have been a revolving door on the head football coach's office in Neyland Stadium.

Since 2008, Tennessee has had four football head men; UT is now hiring its third men's basketball coach since 2011; it is on its second full-time athletics director in that same span.

From the league perspective, in each of the last two seasons the SEC has gotten only three teams into the NCAA Tournament. For a power conference, that is embarrassing.

The most likely scenario for an SEC men's basketball resurgence involves a strong Tennessee joining UK and UF as conference bedrocks from which you build upward. Which is why, if you want the league Kentucky plays in to regain the nation's respect, pulling for UT to make a hiring slam dunk is the way to go.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: Markstory.bloginky.com.

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