High character

Cuonzo Martin learned the hard way that it's better to recruit character than characters.

After becoming head coach at Missouri State in 2008, he added four spring signees to the six scholarship players he inherited. One year later, all four signees had left the program.

Since becoming head coach at Tennessee two months ago, he has added five newcomers to the seven scholarship players he inherited. You have to wonder: Will his first Vols class evaporate within 12 months, as happened with his first Bears class?

Some Vol fans worry that Martin added a few warm bodies without adding any real substance to the roster. The coach hints that he may have been guilty of that in '08, resulting in an 11-20 season, but says he learned from the experience and did not repeat it this year.

"When I took over at Missouri State we had six guys on scholarship," he recalled recently. "I signed four guys quick but a year later none of those guys was in the program. We recruited better guys and those guys left, which was fine. But I learned that you have to recruit guys that are at least good enough (to contribute) and guys with character, so they'll still be in your program a year later."

Naturally, Martin would love to have landed a group of 4- and 5-star prospects in recent weeks. Most of the elite recruits sign in November, however, so what's left for the spring signing period is largely an assortment of sleepers and projects. Martin is convinced he and his staff did a good job of finding some keepers among the sleepers.

"You always want the best players available but our system is really about playing hard," he said. "We run motion offense, we run ball screens and run set plays but you have to play hard. We ask, 'Can he play hard? Does he have a level of toughness. Does he come from a winning program? What's his character like?'"

Character counts. Six players were shown the door during former head man Bruce Pearl's six years on The Hill - Jemere Hendrix (2005), Major Wingate (2006), Tony Passley (2007), Ramar Smith and Duke Crews (2008) and Tyler Smith (2010). There's no telling how many wins those premature departures cost the program.

Ultimately, Cuonzo Martin is a lot more concerned with how much character a player has in his makeup than how many stars he has in his recruiting profile.

"You've got to make a decision as a ball player if you want to be part of what we're doing," the coach said. "Character is first and foremost with us. It's tough trying to go to class every day, work hard to be successful and win championships, so we don't need to deal with outside factors ... doing things that doesn't represent Tennessee basketball."

Some players are so focused on bettering themselves athletically that they cut corners academically. Martin finds this intolerable.

"I demand they go to class every day," he said.

He also demands that players represent the program in a positive manner.

"As an assistant coach I hated receiving those calls about players not doing the right things," Martin said. "So I tell my assistants: 'These are the things you need to be looking at because if there's a call at 2 o'clock in the morning I'm not answering it.'"


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