Fighting spirit

Cuonzo Martin fought his way off of the mean streets of East St. Louis, Illinois. He fought through multiple knee injuries as a basketball player at Purdue University. He fought cancer and won.

Given all of that, becoming head basketball coach at the University of Tennessee probably didn't seem like such a daunting challenge. Martin certainly seemed undaunted after being introduced earlier today as the Vols' sixth head man in the past 21 years.

Even with Tennessee facing possible NCAA sanctions related to 10 major violations committed under the watch of predecessor Bruce Pearl, Martin says he had no reservations after discussing the matter with athletics director Mike Hamilton.

"It's a great job, it's a great opportunity," the new coach said. "It has great tradition, great history. It's in a great league. As far as the NCAA is concerned, Mike assured me everything will work out, and I support that 100 percent. Whatever happens with the NCAA, I'm here to coach the ball team and to be successful doing this.

"I'm really not consumed or worried about what the NCAA has to do. We'll just kind of wait and see when that happens. Right now I just want to coach these young men to be successful."

Martin, 39, comes to Tennessee from Missouri State, where his 2010-11 team posted a 26-9 overall record and won the Missouri Valley Conference title with a 15-3 league mark. The Bears were known for their tenacity on defense and efficiency on offense, ranking seventh nationally by averaging just 10.3 turnovers per game.

After describing himself as "a player's coach," Martin added: "One thing we had great success with at Missouri State was we were able to score the ball - first or second in the league - but we were also first in the league in not turning the ball over.... We didn't turn the ball over but we still scored the ball at a high level."

Missouri State produced 69.8 points per game in 2010-11, virtually matching the 2010-11 Vols average of 69.9.

Much more reserved than predecessor Pearl, Martin will not be baring his orange-painted chest at Lady Vol games or standing on dining tables in the school cafeteria to drum up support among students. He won't be playing zone defense, either.

"We all have to defend at a high level, be very intense behind a real aggressive man-to-man defense," Martin said. "If we have to play zone, then we're in trouble that night, so we don't plan on playing any zone."

Martin flew into Knoxville Sunday night and met with Tennessee's players at 11:30. He described them as "wonderful young men," adding that "It's fun coaching good guys that want to do the right things and do them the right way - go to class, be on time and all of those things. Those things are important. It's not just winning ball games. It's being successful, on and off the court."

Pearl guided Tennessee to an NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance 12 months ago, and Martin has his sights set even higher.

"I think this is a top-25 job," he said, "but our goal is to be the last team standing someday - that is, to be a national champion. I think we can do that with the right pieces."

Martin says he already has contacted the two high school seniors who signed with Tennessee last November - point guard Chris Jones and shooting guard Kevin Ware. He plans to sit down with each following the upcoming NCAA Final Four "touching base and making sure both parties understand what we're trying to do, so we all can be successful."

The new coach also has spoken with two current Vols who may renounce their remaining collegiate eligibility in favor of the NBA Draft - rising senior Scotty Hopson and rising sophomore Tobias Harris.

Describing them as "two quality young men," Martin went on to say he wants each to test the NBA waters carefully before making a decision.

"I want both of those guys to go at it full-bore (at NBA prospect camps) and try to be successful, try to make it," he said. "If not, then come back and be a part of this (Vol) family, so we can continue to have success."

Pearl's teams annually ranked among the NCAA's top 10 in schedule strength, and Martin plans to continue that trend.

"Without a doubt, we want to play the best teams," he said. "I think that's the key, especially in such a great league. When you have the talent level to play teams like that ... that's our goal - to continue to play the best teams in the country."

Although he acknowledged that he will recruit "the best players available," Martin said he looks for players with "high-level character and substance to 'em ... I want more than guys who can put the ball in the basket. I want a well-rounded young man."

After a three-year stint at Missouri State, where the basketball team practiced and played in 11,000-seat JQH Arena, Martin is understandably blown away by Tennessee's 21,678-seat Thompson-Boling Arena and Pratt Pavilion practice facility.

After characterizing the facilities as "tremendous," Martin quipped: "As nice as they are, you could get lazy.... But we'll continue to work hard. The facilities are just part of what we do. We have to sell the program. I tell guys all the time: 'You can't take the arena and locker rooms with you when you're done playing.'"

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