Year 1 success

Coming off a disappointing season, Tennessee fires its head basketball coach. With the top scorers leaving the program, the returnees - on paper, at least - are an unimpressive bunch.

We could be talking about 2011-12 ... or we could be talking about 2005-06. The situation Cuonzo Martin has inherited this year is somewhat bleak. Then again, so was the one Bruce Pearl inherited six years ago.

Taking over the remnants of a team that had gone 14-17 in 2004-05, Pearl somehow overcame the rampant pessimism and went 22-8 in Year 1. Martin takes over the remnants of a team that went 19-15 in 2010-11 but faces even more pessimism in Year 1 due to the loss of two key underclassmen and the specter of possible NCAA sanctions.

So, what did Bruce Pearl do to solidify the program in his rookie year that Cuonzo Martin might do to solidify it in his rookie year?

"First of all, you've got to get the guys to buy into your system, to believe in what you're teaching," former Vol aide Tony Jones said recently. "I think Coach Martin and his staff will be able to do that but it's going to be tough because the SEC is a very good league. Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida are going to be very good, along with Alabama."

Asked why he thinks Martin's staff will be able to get the Vols to "buy in" right away, Jones replied: "I think they'll have the opportunity to get in there early and get those players socialized in their philosophy. And, hopefully, they'll be able to compete at the level Vol fans are accustomed to."

The former Vol aide says there is but one piece of advice he would give Cuonzo Martin regarding his first year at the Big Orange helm.

"Just be yourself," Jones said. "Stay on an even keel, even if you lose some tough games early. Don't take life too seriously because you can't get out alive."

Pearl's debut season started with a bang when he went to Austin and shocked sixth-ranked Texas to cap a 6-0 start. That signature win gave the program an immeasurable boost.

Thanks to Tony Jones, Martin will have plenty of opportunities to post a signature win of his own in the early stages of the 2011-12 season.

"Our schedule was almost in place before we were let go, so it's going to be a tough schedule for him," Jones said of the slate he put together shortly before being dismissed in March. "But if he (Martin) can go out there and win one of those games in Maui, he's going to be well on his way to solidifying his place in Tennessee basketball history."

C.J. Watson, who just completed his fourth year in the NBA, was a senior point guard at Tennessee when Pearl took over in 2005-06. Watson says the key for any first-year coaching staff is winning the respect of the players.

"You just have to get used to 'em, trust 'em and believe in the new system," he said. "If they do that, I'm sure everything will be fine."


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