On Nov. 24 the Vols prevailed 77-72 against a Virginia Commonwealth team that has since made its way into the Final Four. On Nov. 26 they upset seventh-ranked Villanova 78-68 to claim the NIT Season Tipoff Tournament championship.
The Big Orange was 7-0 at that point and soon to be ranked among America's top 10 teams.
Given that Tennessee subsequently staggered to a 19-15 finish and fired head coach Bruce Pearl, Vol fans no doubt remember those November days fondly. What they may not remember is this: Seven days before the Big Orange beat VCU and nine days before the Vols shocked Villanova, they were pushed to the limit in beating a pesky Missouri State team 60-56 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
The game was in doubt until Trae Golden sank a pair of free throws with 7.2 seconds left, bumping a 58-56 lead to the final margin. The visiting Bears limited the Vols to a mere 40.4 shooting percentage from the field that night and a 28.6 percentage from 3. Tennessee also finished with more turnovers (13) than assists (8).
That Missouri State team was coached by Cuonzo Martin, who will be back in Thompson-Boling Arena Monday afternoon ... when he'll be introduced as Tennessee's new head coach.
Cuonzo (pronounced CON-zo) Martin, 39, is an intriguing choice. In addition to the ninth-seeded Vols, he faced two other teams that made this year's NCAA Tournament. He hammered No. 16 seed Arkansas-Little Rock 80-46 back in November and played No. 14 seed Indiana State three times - winning 73-66 at home, losing 70-69 at Terre Haute and bowing 60-56 in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament finals at St. Louis.
Martin's Bears also posted two defeats of Wichita State, coached by Gregg Marshall, regarded by some as a candidate for the now-filled Tennessee vacancy. Missouri State prevailed 59-56 at Wichita and won 69-64 in Springfield, handing Marshall two of his eight losses. Wichita State carries a 27-8 record into the NIT semifinals on Tuesday night.
Missouri State went 25-8 during the 2010-11 regular season, winning the MVC regular-season title with a 15-3 league mark. The Bears were snubbed by the NCAA Tournament selection committee, however, following their loss in the MVC tournament's title game. Relegated to the NIT, they beat Murray State 89-76 in their opener, then lost to Miami 81-72 in Round 2.
Martin accomplished quite a rebuilding job in Springfield, going 11-20 in 2008-09, 24-12 in 2009-10 and 26-9 in 2010-11. His three-year record at the school was 61-41. He recently was named Missouri Valley Conference Coach of the Year and is a finalist for two national honors - the Hugh Durham National Coach of the Year award and the Ben Jobe Award, given annually to a highly successful minority coach.
Despite an increase in attendance, Martin's Bears averaged around 7,500 fans per game in 2010-11. That's barely one-third of the attendance at Thompson-Boling Arena this season. On a positive note, Martin's team did a nice job of guarding its yard. The Bears went 16-1 at home, whereas Pearl's 2010-11 Vols went just 10-8 on their home floor.
Martin should feel right at home in Thompson-Boling. In addition to nearly beating the Vols there back on Nov. 17, he played in TBA once during his college days at Purdue. Martin made eight 3-point baskets that evening, helping the Boilermakers beat Kansas in a Sweet 16 matchup in March of 1994.