Commentary: Assessing Cuonzo Martin


View Small TextView Normal TextView Large TextView Extra Large TextPrinter-Friendly Article

By Dan Lachman, Staff Writer
Posted Mar 17, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017

News Image

The brief Cuonzo Martin era for California Men's Basketball is over after just three years. Martin compiled a 62-39 record at Cal, with one NCAA Tournament appearance and zero post-season victories. Apparently, this was enough to land a huge contract from Missouri to rebuild their program.

Martin was a fine representative of the University, and by all accounts, his players liked playing for him. For the most part, they played hard, if not always well or intelligently. The evidence is pretty clear that nine seasons into his career as a head coach, Martin still has a way to go.

His consistent mantra at Cal was "defend, rebound and play hard." His teams did that for most of the 101 games of his tenure. Notice that he did not say, "share the ball," or "make shots." Offense was not his priority. He talked about not wanting his players to be robots, that he wanted them to have freedom to make plays and react to the defense.

The evidence is pretty clear that Cal was not a good offensive team under Martin. This season, the Bears ranked 12th in field goal percentage, 11th in three-point percentage, and 10th in free throw percentage in the Pac-12. They also played slowly. According to, Cal ranked 281st in adjusted tempo out of 351 division one teams.

In fact, playing at a slow tempo has been a characteristic of all of Martin's teams in his nine-year career. His first Cal team posted the quickest tempo of any Martin team, and they ranked 115th. His Tennessee teams ranked from 208th to 322nd in adjusted tempo. The idea that any Martin team would run is far-fetched at this point. He is a conservative guy.

As mediocre as this team was on the offensive end, they were excellent defensively. They were number one in field goal percentage defense (39.9%) and third in three-point percentage defense (32.4%) in the conference. Martin does not believe in gambling defense, so Cal only pressed in desperation, and did not go for steals. They ranked in the top three in rebounding.

These numbers are revealing, but the eye test is equally telling. Cal displayed a distressing penchant for coming up short in big games and against elite competition, particularly in Martin's last two seasons.

Some examples from the 2015-16 season:

  • On December 22, 2015, lost to Virginia 63-62 in overtime in Charlottesville after leading by 11 with 13 minutes to go, and by six in overtime with 2:25 remaining.

  • On March 3, 2016, lost at Arizona 64-61 after leading by eight with 2:25 left. The Wildcats scored the final 11 points of the game.

  • On March 11, lost to Utah 82-78 in overtime in the Pac-12 Tournament. They needed one stop to advance to the Final, but allowed Lorenzo Bonam to go the length of the floor in 4.3 seconds to score a lay-up at the buzzer, and then lost in OT.

  • On March 18, lost to Hawaii 77-66 in the NCAA Tournament without Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird.

From this past season:

  • December 21, 2016 lost to Virginia 56-52 with two four-minute scoring droughts in the second half.

  • December 30, lost to Arizona 67-62 after leading by 13 in the first half.

  • February 16, 2017, lost at Arizona 62-57.

  • February 22, lost to Oregon 68-65 after leading by 14 in the first half, and by 10 with just over four minutes remaining.

That leaves out the inexplicable 74-44 loss to Utah in Salt Lake City in March, with a chance to clinch a bye in the Pac-12 Tournament. And, against the same Utah team in the Pac-12 Tournament, the Bears nearly blew an 11 point lead in the final 2:20 in the semifinals.

The bottom line is Martin had three McDonald's All Americans at Cal (one of whom he inherited), and did not win a post-season game. His last team went 3-7 in their final 10 games. They went 0-6 against the top three teams in the league. He never came up with a scheme to take full advantage of Ivan Rabb's considerable skill set.

Martin's reputation is mostly based on the Sweet 16 run at Tennessee, but most people don't look closely at the way that happened. That Tennessee team under-achieved all season and scraped into the Tournament as one of the last four at-large teams. They played a staggering Iowa team that had lost six of seven at the First Four and won in overtime, then played a Massachusetts team that had lost three of five, and then drew Mercer in the second round because Mercer had upset Duke. They lost to Michigan in the Sweet 16 73-71 after falling behind by 15 in the second half.

Maybe things will work out for Martin at Missouri, but there are no guarantees. Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk once gave Ken Bone a seven-year contract when he was at Washington State. That was not one of the best all-time hires.

When Martin was hired at Cal, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks called it a "spectacular hire." It turned out to be something less than that. Having a coach bail after three years essentially makes it a wasted period for the program. Now they have to start over again, and there is definitely a chance that they may lose current players and/or recruits.

The next hire will be an important one. It is likely to be a rebuilding period for the program, and Cal is going to need the right guy.

New to The Bear Insider?