Cuonzo’s greatest challenge

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Updated: February 17, 2014

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Cuonzo Martin’s greatest challenge has nothing to do with its next opponent, substitution patterns or a lack of consistency.

The head basketball coach at Tennessee doesn’t need to overly concern himself with late-game strategy, untimely timeouts or in-bounds schematics.

Sure, those are important problems plaguing UT’s team. However, there is much more at play with the Vols. For whatever reason, Martin’s players aren’t responding to him. Or they aren’t responding to each other. Perhaps both.

The Vols would have left Missouri with a win on Saturday had they continued the game plan that worked so well for them in the majority of the game. Forward Jarnell Stokes was a presence underneath for the Vols against the Tigers throughout the first half and early in the second.

Moreover, Missouri’s front line found itself in serious foul trouble in the second half of UT’s 75-70 loss to Mizzou. The way to win was simple. Stokes. Stokes. Stokes. Then a little more Stokes. Victory was there for the Vols’ taking.

It’s not unusual for college athletes to forgo a game plan, either accidentally or on purpose. Freelancing is a part of college basketball despite how strongly coaches preach against it. However, it’s unusual for a lack of discipline to be a recurring theme. Ultimately, players should follow their coaches’ lead.

Take for instance Martin’s Monday press conference. Repeatedly, Martin said he had told his players to do the very things they failed to execute in the most meaningful moments against Missouri. Stokes needs to demand the ball. Guard Antonio Barton needs to take more shots. Feed the ball inside. The lack of communication is readily apparent.

It almost seemed as if Martin was passing the blame. If not, he was at least grasping at straws.

This is nothing new. The frustration was obvious a week ago when Florida pulled away late. UT’s basketball team, still within striking distance, had the body language of a jilted boyfriend. It happened again when Stokes either didn’t demand the ball or wasn’t offered it readily enough on Saturday in another loss.

Stokes’ post-game interview was brutal. Sports writers repeatedly asked him about not having the ball late in the game. He had few answers other than “I don’t know,” a phrase he uttered more times than he shot. him might have been to blame for his disappearance.

Credit Stokes with being a team-first player. He wasn’t going to rip his teammates or coaches, even though someone other than he might have been to blame for his disappearance.

Actually, it’s hard to figure out who’s to blame. I’m certainly not blaming Martin. Honestly, I’m not sure where the blame lies. Are players not listening? Have the coaches not been as focused on disciplined play as they should have been? Blaming Martin and his coaching staff seems a bit too easy to me. Players at this age must have the maturity to follow their coaches’ lead. This isn’t high school. Freelancing equals three straight seasons without an NCAA bid.

There’s little time to right the ship. Actually it might already be too late. If a player isn’t following instructions in November or December, a coach can bench him to prove a point. One loss may lead to a more disciplined approach and, subsequently, more wins in February and March. However, when a team is 15-10, it’s hard to take a stand unless you’re comfortable with another NIT bid.

It’s hard to come up with a reason why the Vols can win six straight games and keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. UT has only won four consecutive games this season. UT’s longest winning streak this year is a mere four games. And it certainly wasn’t a historical one as wins came against Morehead State, Virginia, Tusculum and LSU.

Not exactly reason enough to rename a street. Perhaps a Cuonzo curb?

The Vols don’t necessarily have to win out to reach the tournament. Winning five games in the regular season and a decent showing in the SEC Tournament could still get them in the dance.

There’s a game plan for the Vols to make March fun. Have faith in each other, follow your coaches’ instructions and improve team chemistry within the locker room. I’d rather draw up a pick-and-roll.

Former Vol guard Cameron Tatum told Steve Phillips that he didn’t believe there was a chemistry issue nor a lack of faith in the coaches after talking to current players. The comments came during an interview on Tennessee Sports Radio.

Perhaps Tatum really was told that and believes it. Perhaps the Vols are super chummy and have total faith in their coaches. Perhaps the players didn’t want to air dirty laundry.

My guess is that players are saying what they want to believe. My guess is that they know this season could continue to head south faster than a snowbird in November. Whatever the truth is, we won’t likely know until after the season. Whether that comes on the heels of an NIT or NCAA bid will be determined very soon. Perhaps too soon for the Vols to make their fans happy.

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