Martin closing on new strength coach; eyes schedule, more key topics

DESTIN, Fla. --- Cuonzo Martin will name a new strength coach before Monday, Tennessee's second-year basketball coach told a trio of reporters Tuesday at the Southeastern Conference's annual spring meetings at the Sandestin Hilton resort.
Martin parted ways within the past month with longtime strength coach Troy Wills, citing a need to go in a new direction. Now that direction must be plotted quickly, Martin said, as the Vols' basketball squad will begin its summer workouts June 4.
"We'd like to have something done here ... man, our guys' first workout is June 4. I think that's next Monday. We'd like to have somebody in the fold then," said Martin, who drew national acclaim in his first campaign as the Vols' coach following a second-place SEC finish. "It's just a matter of me finding the guy and making a decision on, you know, three candidates, and we'll go from there. There will definitely be a strength coach in here working our guys out on Monday, so it's just a matter of, you know, me continuing to do the research with the assistant coaches and Ron McKeefery and just making a decision. That decision could come (imminently) so we can get this thing done, because we've got to have somebody in here so we're ready to roll on Monday."
Martin said he's having to blend finding a highly qualified individual with someone who wants to be around his Tennessee program long-term; the former Purdue standout has little interest in regular searches to find his strength and conditioning leader.
"This is a vital position. Really, it is. And you can't rush it. You've got to figure out the best guy. Because the one thing about it ... this is a premier job, so to speak, and guys want to be a part of it," Martin said. "But you also want to have a guy that you feel like wants to be part of it for the long term - because if you have success, everybody's picking at your guys, and it happens, but you want to get a guy you know can be in the trenches with you for a long time."
The reality for Martin's basketball team and program is that it's entirely possible the Vols no longer will be guaranteed two tilts with longtime rival and defending national champion Kentucky as the SEC transitions to its new 18-game, 14-team format.
Ever a competitor, Martin holds no desire to skirt Big Blue.
"I'd like to play them twice. I really would," Martin said. "As much as you try to get away from the fact, in a lot of people's minds there's still an East and a West. And for Tennessee fans - and I like to think for Kentucky fans - I think they want to see that game (twice) every year. I know one year that happened in the Big Ten with Purdue and Indiana. I can't remember where we played at, but we also had a neutral-site in Indianapolis in the dome where the Colts played at. So we played that game, so it was twice. Those are things you look at. But then you talk about scheduling - when do you do that? But I'd like to play Kentucky twice. I really would."
In a league that, despite boasting the reigning champion Wildcats, doesn't carry a sparkling national profile, Martin also sees a pair of UT-UK clashes as positive considering both programs have been top-10 in national attendance for the past several years.
"I think it should happen. I do. I think it should happen," Martin emphasized. "Once again, you give the fans what they want. Seven straight years, (we're) both top-five in attendance. I think the fans look forward to that. After so many years, to take that (second) game away, I don't think fans would be very happy about that one. Not to take anything away from somebody else that we play twice, but I think the fans look forward to seeing Georgia, Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt every year. And I don't think they want to take those games away."
The SEC's ongoing deliberations regarding its basketball format also has handcuffed the ability to schedule for the coming season, Martin explained.
"I think what happens is, I was surprised by the fact that you only get four teams in the SEC in the NCAA tournament. That just blows my mind," Martin said. "But I think what we have to do as a league is do a better job in preseason scheduling. But now, it can also be tricky from the standpoint of, you might be in a situation where you don't schedule as heavy as you like to in preseason and then you struggle during the season. Or you might schedule heavy in the preseason and then you win some games in the conference, but they're not against great opponents, because their RPI is so low. Look at Alabama a few years back. It's a tough call, because you can't sit there and go into a season saying, 'Well, Mississippi State, Auburn, Kentucky ... all those teams will be in the top-10.' OK, well, you're not sure you're gonna play those teams twice. So how do you schedule in the preseason not knowing that you're gonna play those teams twice?
"So I think the best thing that we have to do is we have to do a better job in the preseason of scheduling, so now it doesn't kill you on the backside. In the Big East, they beat each other up so bad because their conference is so strong. Now all of a sudden you see a team getting in at 10-8 or 9-9, and now they're getting in the NCAA tournament because the conference is so good."
Martin did praise the new NCAA rule allowing for eight hours' practice time through the summer with his troops, and he also addressed the proposed $2,000 per semester stipend that is being floated for student-athletes.
"I think the GPA requirements for junior college guys is going up, and it'll be a lot tougher. It's just those things like that, because you want to have an opportunity to get those guys in school. It's already tough enough as it is, but to get those guys into school (is big). But other than that, they've talked about the $2,000 stipend for guys," Martin said. "We'll see what the league says is best. But most importantly, just for me to be able to work with our guys on the court is the biggest thing."