The floor is open for debate on the performance of Cuonzo Martin asTennessee's basketball coach, but one factor should be removed from the discussion: Bruce Pearl.
Forget about him. He's not coming back. Get over it.
Look, I feel your pain. I like the guy. Of all the people I've dealt with in this job, Pearl is one of my favorites. He is approachable, accommodating and glib. It's never dull.
And the guy is one heckuva coach and promoter. He took a flat-lined program and made it special. He got the Vols to No. 1 in the nation for one heady week in February 2008. His 2010 team came within one defensive stop of going to the Final Four.
The renovation that turned Thompson-Boling Arena from a place with all the personality of an airplane hangar into a true home-court advantage would not have happened without Pearl.
But his time at UT has come and gone. For reasons only he knows, Pearl committed the unpardonable sin of lying to an NCAA investigator and encouraging others to do the same. He got fired because of it. And he can't be rehired by UT because of it.
That ship has sailed. Time to move on.
Granted, Mike Hamilton is no longer UT's athletics director — in large part because of his poor handling of the Pearl situation — but many key decision-makers are still in place, including the university president, chancellor and several influential donors. Just because Pearl's three-year NCAA show-cause purgatory ends in August 2014, that doesn't mean he could be in play at UT.
Yes, I know the NCAA punishment was over the top, particularly when you compare it to some recent cases. But it should be noted that the harshest sanctions were against Pearl while the UT basketball program was largely untouched.
As for Martin, he should be judged on his own successes and failures, not in comparison to Pearl. Unfortunately, that will never be the case. Pearl left too large a shadow. His teams were flashy while Martin's tend to be plodding. Pearl's teams went to the NCAA Tournament while Martin has topped out in the NIT in his two previous seasons at UT.
Those back-to-back NIT berths after six straight NCAA appearances under Pearl have heightened pressure on Martin this season. These Vols should be better than their 6-4 start that includes an ugly 65-58 home loss to North Carolina State on Wednesday. If the Vols can't make the NCAA Tournament field with three seniors and two juniors in the starting lineup, when will they?
It doesn't help Martin's case that two of UT's three best players are holdovers from the Pearl regime. Jordan McRae was a Pearl signee, and Jeronne Maymon transferred from Marquette to UT in Pearl's next-to-last season.
It is a team with some serious flaws. If the Vols don't make outside shots, they're toast. Against N.C. State, they were just 3-for-24 from 3-point range. When that happens, defenses pack it in against Jarnell Stokes and Maymon.
On top of that, these Vols sometimes lack focus. Martin used the term "flat" in reference to UT's first-half play against N.C. State. He was being kind. The Vols trailed 37-20 at halftime.
"Something was missing but you couldn't put your finger on it," said Maymon, who finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds. "… I think we just need to have a better focus coming into the game."
To be fair, it's early. Everybody knew back-to-back games against Wichita State and N.C. State would be tough. The SEC schedule doesn't start for another three weeks. Martin's teams tend to play much better when they get deep into the season.
Martin has done some good things at UT. Beating Kentucky by 30 points last season comes to mind. He's 3-1 against Vanderbilt and 3-0 against Florida. His first Vols team won eight of its last nine regular-season games and finished tied for second in the SEC.
Moreover, he is a man of high character. You don't have to worry about the NCAA snooping around.
In sum, it's fair to scrutinize Cuonzo Martin's performance as Vols coach. It comes with the turf. Just keep Bruce Pearl's name out of the argument.