As a forward looking fan I maintain constantly evolving lists of coaches my school should look at in the event that Leonard Hamilton retires or moves on to another position. Hamilton will be 64 years old when this season begins. So who should FSU be looking at for his replacement?
Cuonzo Martin used to be at the top of that list. And then, a little more than a year ago, he was hired at Tennessee in the wake of the mess left by Bruce Pearl on the Volunteers front doorstep.
The fans reactions were predictably mixed. So while many of them were complaining that the hire sucked, I shook my head and revisited my list. But Martin was so far out ahead of anyone else on that list that I eventually gave up and moved on. Now that he's at Tennessee there's no chance he would take a step backward to a program like Florida State. So it goes.
Martin comes from an elite coaching tree (Gene Keady), has the requisite college and NBA backgrounds, is ridiculously competitive and understands how to run a program. He's a high level recruiter. He was called by Gene Keady as the "best leader [he] ever had as a coach." He's a cancer survivor. He went back to college and got his degree. He's 40.
What happened last season: The Cuonzo Martin era began with a whimper, as the Volunteers limped out of the gate to a 3-6 start, and even that record masks how bad it was. The three wins came against UNC Greensboro (on its way to a 2-14 start), Louisiana Monroe (who won 3 games all season), and Chaminade (which isn't a Division I school). Three of the losses came against Oakland, Austin Peay and the College of Charleston. They finished their out of conference schedule with four wins against middling teams followed by their 2nd loss to in-state rival Memphis.
And then somehow they rolled Florida.
After a loss to Mississippi State, phase II of the season began: Jarnell Stokes arrived. The consensus 5* recruit was the gem of Martin's 2012 recruiting class, but he re-classified to 2011 after being declared ineligible for his senior season due to transfers, practiced with the team for a few days, and then made his debut a week after his 17th birthday against Kentucky. They lost, as they would the next game. But on January 21st - a week after his first game - Stokes broke into the starting lineup and dropped 16 and 12 in a win over UConn. That coincided with a gradual increase in minutes for sophomore Trae Golden and junior Jeronne Maymon. Those three players along with senior Cameron Tatum formed a core for the Volunteers, and they would go on to finish the regular season on a 10-3 run, including wins over Florida (again) and Vanderbilt.
What they lost: Cameron Tatum was the rare high major player who redshirted and then played four seasons. Early in his career he was pegged as "the guy" and he had a sophomore season to fuel those flames: 39% from beyond the arc, a solid all-around game off the bench; but once he became a full time starter he never was able to fill that potential. Naturally, fans had a love/hate relationship with him, and were often derisive of his on-court performance. But once he graduated fans suddenly realized that a fixture of Tennessee basketball would no longer be around and so they wove their tales of gratitude. The other departing senior is fan favorite Renaldo Woolridge, aka Swiperboy. He'll be missed as well, though his role on the court won't be difficult to fill.
What they have: It all starts with 6-1 point guard Trae Golden, who had a breakout season last year as a sophomore. He led the team in scoring and assists, had the 2nd highest assist rate in the SEC, and made 39% of his 3s. He's nearly impossible to contain off the dribble, and drew 4.8 fouls/40 which is elite for a guard. 6-7 senior Jeronne Maymon drew high praise from coach Martin in the preseason, and then went out and had a great year. He lives at the line, and is one of the best rebounders in the conference. Senior Skylar McBee, a former walkon, is the designated spot-up shooter. 89% of his shots came from beyond the arc, and he made 39%. Jordan McCrae has a ton of potential, but has yet to put it together. It doesn't help that the 6-5 junior only made 33% of his 3-point attempts. Still, he's a gifted athlete who can defend and rebound and he'll do a lot of unseen things for this team. Finally, the starting lineup finishes with 6-8 sophomore Jarnell Stokes. Thrown into the lineup in what should have been his final semester in high school, he played on instinct and still impressed. He's a beast inside. Now he's gathering tons of experience in the summer for the USA U-18 team, and will get a full preseason of practice as well as the team trip to Italy. If you're looking for a breakout player of the year candidate, Stokes is it.
6-6 sophomore Josh Richardson was one of the first players off the bench. He struggled as a freshman (most do), but the versitile backcourt player has plenty of room to develop. Seniors Kenny Hall (6-9) and Dwight Miller (6-8) provide some size off the bench. Sophmore Yemi Makanjuola (6-9) needs to keep developing his game. He's a project with a high ceiling.
The newcomers start with 6-5 Quinton Chievous and 6-6 D'Montre Edwards. Chievous redshirted last season, hated it, and then realized it was the right thing. After a year in the system, expect him to provide some solid depth at the 2. JUCO transfer D'Montre Edwards is a wing with a nice mid-range game, and he can get to the rim. He made 36% of his 3s as a sophomore. 6-5 Armani Moore could benefit from a redshirt season, and likely won't see many minutes in what is becoming a crowded perimeter. 6-7 Derek Reese just spent the summer playing for the U-19 Pueto Rican team. He's another player who probably won't see a ton of time until he's a sophomore.
Where they're going: Volunteer fans got used to making the NCAA Tournament under coach Bruce Pearl. They made six consecutive Tournaments before he was fired for off-court issues. Last year, under the new regime, they failed to make a seventh. Luckily for the fans it will be a one-year break. Tennessee has a great starting five who should find their offensive feet in coach Martin's second season. They've already proved they can play defense. If Florida or Kentucky stumble, Tennessee could very well surprise some people by winning the SEC. It's a good time to be a Tennessee fan.