DAYTON, Ohio -- Count it as the first NCAA tournament victory for Cuonzo Martin or simply earning his first true bid to the Big Dance, it really doesn’t make any difference now.
After spending the season with the shadow of his predecessor seemingly getting larger every day, even popping up on the eve of perhaps the biggest game of his tenure with Tennessee, Martin finally, officially stepped out into some sunlight.
Maybe the Vols don’t play the prettiest brand of basketball, and certainly a win in the First Four doesn’t measure up to some of the loftier perches the program reached before he arrived. But in a gritty, nasty, 78-65 overtime street fight with Iowa on Wednesday night at UD Arena, Martin claimed a win that at last might have given him a way to silence the skeptics, the petition-signers and the comparisons to Bruce Pearl.
“I don’t deal with criticism,” Martin said. “That’s time and energy wasted.
“What was said? I don’t know. I don’t have that kind of time and energy. I’m consumed with success.”
So are all the orange-clad fans, and after what they had grown accustomed to while going to six straight tournaments under Pearl, they were practically starving for some of that success to arrive after Martin’s first two seasons ended in the NIT.
That brought plenty of ammunition for the Bring Back Bruce Brigade, which put together a petition that was signed by more than 36,000 people, all of them quick to point out Pearl’s record, the No. 1 ranking the team climbed to under his watch and his engaging personality. Pearl couldn’t return to the Vols even if he wanted to now that he has taken over at Auburn, a move which coincidentally was announced about an hour before Martin met with the media on Tuesday on the eve of the first round.
But even when patience might have been wearing at its thinnest over the past couple months in Knoxville, the seeds Martin planted when he arrived in the wake of the NCAA investigation that chased Pearl out of town seemed to be blooming at just the right time.
Toughness? The Vols crave contact so much, they celebrated big plays by shoving each other under the basket.
Hard-nosed defense? The Hawkeyes came into the tournament averaging 82 points per game, and they came up 17 short despite getting an extra five minutes.
Resilience? Tennessee could have easily packed it in after bricking everything it threw up during a scoreless six-minute stretch to open the game as it fell behind by 12, or grown tired of having every second-half run and clutch shot answered by one on the other end by Iowa.
But those pillars Martin has preached since taking over were plain to see as Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon fought in the post for a combined 27 points and 20 rebounds. They were obvious as Tennessee’s guards harassed the Hawkeyes on the perimeter and came up with two steals and forced six turnovers. And all that tireless work eventually wore down Iowa in overtime and allowed the Vols to pull away to leave enough time for the typically stoic Martin to look into the crowd behind the bench and pump his fists a few times.
The celebration grew a little louder as Martin headed toward the tunnel leading to the locker room clapping his hands, and the noise coming from inside it once he arrived was impossible to ignore.
“We tried to stay away from all the criticism that this team has been receiving throughout the year,” Stokes said. “It’s that’s our motivation, then we’re in it for the wrong reason.
“We’re in it for Tennessee, keeping things positive.”
The Vols left no reason for negativity as they packed up in Dayton and prepared to fly to Raleigh, N.C., for a date with sixth-seeded Massachusetts on Friday.
And as for the latter part of Stokes’ equation, Tennessee now looks exactly like Martin intended when he took the reins. Maybe now he can stop hearing about who used to hold them.