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Last updated: Fri. Mar. 28, 2014 - 08:02 am EDT

COLUMN

Forget meek, Martin pushes 'tougher breed' approach

Ex-Purdue standout leads Tennessee into Sweet 16

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Tipoff: Tennessee vs. Michigan, 7:15 p.m., tonight, Sweet 16, Indianapolis

TV: CBS

Tipoff: Kentucky vs. Louisville, 9:15 p.m., tonight, Sweet 16, Indianapolis

TV: CBS

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The meek are not wanted. They can inherit the earth, but stay out of the Tennessee locker room.

Cuonzo Martin coaches bold. The season slogan of “A tougher breed” wasn't inspired by hugs and turning the other cheek.

“He calls it tough love,” sophomore guard Armani Moore says.

Martin loves with shaved head, dark goatee and testosterone-rich physicality. He's a force of coaching nature in the manner of his Purdue mentor, Gene Keady, except without the scowl and foot stomping. Martin directs with a more stoic approach (the occasional fist pump aside), which shouldn't be confused with disinterest.

“I'm always excited,” he says. “Whether it's good excitement or bad excitement, it's always there. I have great passion and energy, but when the lights come on, it's about the players. I don't need the stage to perform. I had my day of doing that. It's about our players. It's their time.”

Their time is now. Tonight the 11th-seeded Volunteers (24-12) face No. 2 Michigan (27-8) in a Sweet 16 showdown at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Tennessee didn't figure to be here. It barely made the field and faced First Four disrespect, although no one in the program saw it that way. In a five-day span last week it beat Iowa, Massachusetts and Duke-slayer Mercer to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in Martin's six-year coaching career.

“We were happy to play in the NCAA Tournament,” he says. “Maybe I'm clueless on the fact people say the First Four. It's the NCAA Tournament. That's the most important thing. That's all we were consumed with.”

Consuming has produced eight victories in the last nine games, the only loss coming to top-ranked Florida 56-49 in the SEC tourney. That wiped away the sting of 11 losses by nine or fewer points, including one in overtime.

“With the type of a season we had, we kind of felt like we were less than a man because of some of the games we've lost,” Moore says. “Having Coach instill how to go through adversity helped us out.”

Instillation carried a hard-work price. Martin demands winning the right way, a big reason why he's in Knoxville and Bruce Pearl no longer is. Coddling players isn't his way.

At times players have cursed Martin (although not to his face). They have questioned and messed up and questioned again.

But they bought in.

“It's one thing having a coach who cares about winning, and another to have a coach who cares about you, and then winning,” Moore says. “Coach Martin does a great job of building us up as men. He cares about us as a man first, then as a player. He teaches us how to be men.”

Senior guard Jordan McRae says on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the toughest, Pearl's discipline was an 8, while Martin's hits 15.

Miss a meeting, get up at 5 a.m. and run. Be late for class, run early for four or five straight days. Really mess up, and you sit on the bench and watch while teammates run sprints because of your transgression.

Yes, that has an impact.

Martin is a defense-first coach, just as Keady was when Martin helped the Boilers reach three straight NCAA tourneys and win a pair of Big Ten titles in the mid-1990s, and his drills reflect that.

One is where players get into a defensive stance with arms straight out holding 10-pound or 25-pound dumbbells, side stepping around the three-point arc until Martin says stop or somebody drops the weight.

Yes, the weight dropper hears about it.

Another is when a player guards somebody for four straight times, then has to defend three players at once, not stopping until he gets a stop.

Tough?

You bet.

Over the top?

Not if you want to win.

“It's all about playing tough, playing hard,” Moore says. “It's about developing players to help them fight through adversity.”

Martin understands adversity. He survived a tough East St. Louis childhood, bad knees that could have ended his Purdue career before it started, poor outside shooting that suggested reserve status, and a battle with cancer that threatened everything.

The cancer is 16 years in remission. He says his chance of reoccurrence is no greater than that of a person who has always been cancer-free.

“I don't know if it's changed my perspective on life, but it makes you value things more. You learn to appreciate life better. Every day that I don't think about it is a good day. It made me understand what's most important.”

As far as his Boiler roots, Martin still remembers when Keady visited his East St. Louis home on a recruiting trip. Keady's pitch was simple; If you go to class every day, you'll get your degree; if you work hard, you'll play.

That convinced Martin's mother.

“She said, 'I think you need to go to Purdue,' " Martin says. “It's one of the greatest decisions I've made in my life because Coach is a good man. He's a fair man. He taught me a lot of things. He taught me to be consistent.”

Martin found enough outside shooting consistency to become the Boilers' career three-pointer leader (his 179 three-pointers now rank seventh; E'Twaun Moore leads with 243), play a couple of years in the NBA and then in Europe. He was a high school assistant coach for a year in West Lafayette, then was a Purdue assistant coach for seven years under Keady and Matt Painter.

He took over a Missouri State team that won five games the year before he arrived and won 50 games in his last two seasons before getting the Tennessee job.

Martin arrived in Knoxville after the flamboyant Pearl's NCAA-sanctioned banishment. He won, but not big like Pearl did. Consecutive NIT appearances did not excite the Rocky Top faithful, and when the Volunteers were just 16-11 a month ago, the buzz was he wouldn't make it to a fourth season.

Then it clicked. Tennessee morphed from NIT pretender to Final Four contender, and now all things are possible.

“Our guys have stayed consistent,” Martin says. “If you look at us over the past three years, one thing we've done is get better down the stretch.”

Will that be enough to get past Michigan, the Big Ten champs who are two-point favorites? Martin doesn't dwell on that.

“We've got to this point and you've got to have fun with it. You can't be uptight in this atmosphere. You're doing something right to get to this point. Enjoy it. Embrace it.”

Just don't be meek about it.

pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at pdiprimio@news-sentinel.com.


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