Q&A: Tennessee Head Coach Cuonzo Martin

Cuonzo_Martin2A few weeks back I had the great pleasure of interviewing current Tennessee head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin on my podcast.

Well with college basketball approaching and the first games being played this coming Friday, I decided to go ahead and write out the interview as a long-form interview. I know some of you might be interested in the interview but might have missed it, might not download podcasts, whatever, so I decided this might be a nice way to access the interview, and hear what Coach Martin has to say about his 2013 club.

Included, Coach Martin talks about the 2013 season, how Kentucky’s success has helped his own program, and his team’s affinity for the Hard Rock Café when they visited Italy this summer.

Enjoy, and if you want listen to the entire audio of the quick, 15-minute interview, please click here.

(Also, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres)

Well coach, I appreciate you coming on.

You know, I grew up watching you at Purdue, I grew up- well, I don’t want to date myself too much here, but it wasn’t that long ago that you were a high-level player, competing for Big Ten Championships yourself and now you’re on the other end of the spectrum.

Can you believe how fast the time has flown as you’re now completing your fifth year as a head coach and second at Tennessee?

Time has flown by and I’m just grateful to have the opportunity to coach at the University of Tennessee.

It’s fun times here and we’re getting better as a program and I’m continuing to learn every day as a head coach.

You talk about learning, this is now your second year and you obviously know the players so much better now than you did at this time last year. What is it like now your second year with the program, your second year with these guys? You (now) know Knoxville, you know the area, you know the recruiting area, how much different do you feel as you now head into your second season?

It’s always a lot better when you go into your second or third season with a program because the guys understand the blueprint, they understand the level of play on both ends of the floor, how you’re trying to compete and the importance of going to class every day, and doing the right things off the court, trying to stay under the radar and out of trouble.

We try to talk about all those things as a coaching staff and making sure our guys understand the importance of doing the right things.

Your players obviously know the expectations from you, but did you know exactly what you were walking into last year at the University of Tennessee? It was a program which had gone to six straight NCAA Tournaments, but a lot of talented players had left. Did you know exactly what you were inheriting when you walked in the door a year ago?

Yes I did; the one thing you don’t know is the environment of the coaching, because you haven’t been here on a day-to-day basis. I studied the players from afar, I tried to recruit some of them out of high school, knew them from AAU basketball, so I did know them from afar.

I think the biggest key was, you lost six seniors, then you lost Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris, two very talented guys. So that was eight guys you lost, ninety percent of your production on both ends of the floor. But then you return a lot of guys who were talented, but unproven talent. They didn’t play a lot of minutes, but had accolades coming out of high school in the transition to college. So the biggest thing for us was getting these guys to play to the level of confidence and have fun in doing that.

We had a lot of bumps in the road in doing that because those guys were doing that early, but as we got going into conference play I think the guys got better.

You talk about the bumps in the road, and there were some early season losses, which happens in a transition from one coach to another. But you finished so strong.

Was there one moment with your guys where you felt like the “light bulb” went on, or was it just the evolution of a team over the course of a year?

You saw the progress, there might be a 10 minute spurt in a game and we lost the game, there’d be 20 minutes in a game we played well, but we didn’t put together a complete game. I think the game where I saw guys starting to turn the corner was when we played Florida at home, a very talented, well-coached team, a championship caliber team. We had the opportunity to beat those guys, we played them really well in a really great atmosphere and I think our guys fed off that engine and it helped us the rest of the season.

Obviously the season ended in a really disappointing way after a strong second half (when) you go down to the SEC Tournament in New Orleans and have that unfortunate loss to Ole Miss in overtime. What kind of taste did it leave with the players or the coaching staff as you prepare for the 2013 season?

We tell our guys all the time, you have to be ready to hunt at all times, hungry for the process because one day the ultimate goal is to be the last team standing. There’s only one team that won a National Championship, so for everyone else, you’re ready to hunt and you’re hungry for success.

For our guys, I thought it was the same thing. I thought we had a successful season from where we started to where we finished. But for our standards, it wasn’t a great season. Don’t get me wrong, we want to be playing in NCAA Tournaments, fighting for championships, that’s our ultimate goal. But I thought our guys did make progress considering the situation where we started out of the gates to where we finished.

As we talk about this season coming up, my understanding is that for the first time ever coaches had the opportunity to work with their players in the off-season. I know it’s probably not quite as much as you’d like, but what did you see from your guys or were able to work with them on, that you might not have been able to in years past?

First off, I thought it was one of the best rules in my opinion in the NCAA to allow us to spend two hours a week on the floor with our guys. For me it was just enough. When you start to go four, six, 10, 12 hours, it becomes too much, too taxing on the guys and they don’t have a chance to get better on their own. One thing I liked when I played college basketball was to get in the gym and get better on my own and work on my game and get better so coach could see the results in the fall.

Sometimes you can overdo it in the summertime (as coaches), so I thought it was just enough for our guys to get just enough skill work in but get away from it, to also have somewhat of a life. Because once the season starts we consume all their time with the academic side, the tutors, the mentors, the practices, trying to get individual work in after practice. You want to give those guys a level of freedom.

You also got the chance to take a trip to Italy where I know you had a chance to play as a professional a few years back. What’d you see from the guys over there, whether it be on the court improvement, off the court, just transitioning and getting to know the guys better or maybe getting to know your younger players better?

I thought it was a great thing for us to have an opportunity for our guys to get over there. Our staff went, our AD and his wife went, our baseball coach and his wife went, so I thought it was fun times for our program.

The basketball part was good, but I think the biggest thing we were trying to accomplish as a coaching staff was having our guys around each other around the time and around our families. Once you get into the season you’re constantly going and it’s always about basketball. They’re not able to be around their families as much, so it’s one of those deals where we just wanted our guys to be in the hotel together from start to finish and just have a good time being around each other.

Everybody eat well over there?

We ate well! Put on a little weight too.

I was going to say, that’s got to be your biggest fear as a coach, that maybe everybody enjoys too many carbs over there in Italy.

What our guys did is after a day they found a Hard Rock Café, so they ate cheeseburgers and fries…

You go all the way to Italy to eat cheeseburgers and fries?

That’s what I tried to tell those guys, ‘You’ve got to experience this lifestyle.’ But those guys were hooked on the cheeseburgers and fries because that’s what they’re used to.

I was going to say, if there was ever a reason to have a closed door meeting that might it. You’ve got to enjoy your time over in Italy.

Oh, they enjoyed their time.

Alright, so we’re getting ready for this season, you jump right into it going down to Puerto Rico that first week in November. I know you’re focused on your team and not what everyone else was doing, but there are three or four really good teams, teams that either coming off NCAA Tournaments or projected to be there themselves. How excited are you to get your guys down there and see how they’re able to do against really high level competition?

Oh, very excited. You’ve got NC State a very talented program, Oklahoma State, Akron, Providence, Penn State, you have some really talented teams. You have to be ready to go out of the gates because it’s a tough tournament; guys will be ready to play.

I think the key is you can’t look ahead from the beginning; you’ve got a really talented team in UNC-Asheville, a very talented, well-coached team, so you have to be ready.

We always tell our guys that all they can do is focus on one game at a time.

One of your leaders is senior Trae Golden the point guard, a kid who really had a great second half of the year. What did you see over from him in Italy? I’m assuming as big of a load as he carried last year, he’s got to be even bigger in 2013?

I think he’ll be a little different this year because you’ve got other pieces; guys that are more experienced on the wing, guys that can score around the basket, face up and make plays. So I think for him you want him to have a scorer’s mentality as a point guard, but also distribute the ball, find those wing guys, find his big guys, you know just continue to be aggressive.

I really think his leadership has improved, his body has improved, so I think he’ll be ready to go on both ends of the floor, and I think the biggest thing for him is to defend at a high level.

In that same vein, in addition to Trae you’ve got this guy Jarnell Stokes who shows up in the middle of ;ast season, barely has any time to practice with the team and comes in and is basically is a double-double machine. As a guy who is a fan of the sport I’m excited to see where he’s at as someone who really should just now be starting his freshman year.

How excited are you just to coach him, and then what are your expectations of him now in his second-ish year under your system?

I’m very excited. He’s a guy who is between 265-270 lbs., is very mobile, a real physical specimen, he’s got like eight percent body fat on him. The thing that he’s really improved, his skills have improved, but his explosiveness has improved and his lateral quickness has improved, and that’s a credit to him and our strength coach to really push him.

He’s a guy who I don’t think gets enough credit for his ability to just face up and make plays off the dribble.

Are you surprised with his ability to step in and compete from Day 1 and be unafraid in one of the best leagues in the sport?

I wasn’t surprised because of how physical he is… he understands the game and he slows the game down. When he gets the ball in the post he has a good feel for making passes out, so he’s not pressured by the double-team, he knows how to find guys and he has a good pace to the game.

(What) I thought he did a good job of was making adjustments game-to-game. When we made an adjustment in the scouting reports it was his first time hearing the terminology; with other guys you could say it and they’d heard it before, but for him it was his first time hearing the term. But he did a good job of coming in and watching film, getting in there to learn and getting ready to play.

As we start to wrap up, I wanted to quickly get your take on a few things in the SEC.

First off, we have two new teams entering this league. And while we know that while so much of this realignment stuff- which is pretty much out of anyone’s control- it all happens because of basketball.

Still there are two new teams including Missouri, which is a damn good basketball team. They play in the East, they’re on your schedule a couple times. How excited are you to have another National Championship caliber contender on the schedule.

I think it’s great to have both those programs in our league. Both are really good programs, really good coaches, coaches who do a good job at developing players, recruiting players. So it’s one of those deals that I’m really excited about to beef up our league for basketball.

I’m really excited for everyone involved.

In that same token, you’ve also got some team that just won the National Championship in Kentucky. And I have to imagine even though they have so many quality players, and they’re really well-coached and have good fans, that it’s good for you as a competitor to judge yourself against the best.


When you try to be the best you have to beat the best, and right now I think Kentucky is the best team across the country. It’s one of those deals where you looking forward to going against the best. As a competitor, it’s what you want to do every night.

Yeah and I also have to wonder, it seems like- and I hope it doesn’t come off as disrespectful in any other way- but I do feel like it raises the profile of every other team in the league just because everyone’s (nationally) got that eye on Kentucky. What are they doing? Who are they recruiting?

It does seem like (because of Kentucky) all of a sudden, more people are talking about Tennessee and Georgia and Missouri and… Alabama, Arkansas, whatever the case may be (in large part) because they’re playing in this league with a team that everyone wants to know what they’re doing every year.

Have you seen Kentucky’s presence and success help raise the profile of Tennessee and the SEC as a whole?

Since I’ve been young Kentucky has always been an elite program. What it does is let everyone see around the country the level of talent in the coaching and players in this league. I think in this league, at least seven teams should be in the NCAA Tournament because we have the caliber of coaching and caliber of talent.

Hey, I just remembered, speaking of ‘caliber of talent’ Frank Martin is now at South Carolina. That doesn’t make anything easier, but it does make things more exciting for the league, no?

It does. You want good coaching and I think Frank does a great job developing his players and also developing men. You want all those things in your league, because when your league is good, it’s good for everyone.

I’ll close out with this: What do you define as far as success entering the 2012-2013 season? I know the NCAA Tournament is something you expect from yourself and your players at this point, but even beyond wins and losses, but on a day-to-day, ‘big picture’ level, what are you hoping to see from your team this year?

Well I tell my guys when you step on the court, you have to play as hard as you can play, you have to have a passion for your teammates. And I think every man has to do his part, and that starts from the coach on down and you have to play as hard as you can.

And those are things I kind of talk about, because everything will take care of itself with our system and our blueprint. But those are the things I talk about that need to be addressed, those three things: Have a passion for what you do, a passion for your teammates, and every man has to do his part.

Head Coach Cuonzo Martin, thank you for the time!

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.