Cal hires Cuonzo Martin, who will need to work quickly in competitive Pac-12

Tuesday April 15th, 2014

Cuonzo Martin Cuonzo Martin will compete in recruiting and on the court against top coaches in the Pac-12. (Collegiate Images via Getty)

Cuonzo Martin got what he wanted, which was a program that wanted him. He is the new head coach at California, a move seemingly stemming from how he was treated or perceived at Tennessee. It was sudden. And it is with even more haste that Martin now must get up to speed in a rapidly improving, mostly well-coached, strikingly deep Pac-12 before his new program falls too far off pace. A coach with one NCAA tournament bid and zero apparent ties to the West Coast must prove he was worth the fuss, and time isn't on Martin's side.

He can start by not outsmarting himself. Cal just made a big change in hiring Martin to replace the retired Mike Montgomery, but it's best the big changes end there. Martin must focus on personnel retention, both on his roster and along his new bench. Assistants under Montgomery probably bloodied their knuckles carving inroads into the fertile Southern California AAU scene. Those connections helped lure players like Justin Cobbs (as a transfer) and Richard Solomon, as well as promising freshman guard and Santa Monica native Jordan Matthews. Likewise they were able to mine the rich grounds of the Oakland Soldiers AAU program, bringing top 40 guard Jabari Bird to Berkeley.

ELLIS: Martin was never Bruce Pearl, and he's better off for leaving Tennessee

Overhaul the staff and Martin -- a St. Louis native who played at Purdue and coached at Missouri State and Tennessee -- will scramble just to familiarize himself with the recruiting territory, let alone compete in it. Without ties to SoCal and the Oakland Soldiers, Martin is lost before he even gets started.

Likewise that staff might help him retain talent that can help Cal compete in a rigorous league. Matthews and Bird can't go anywhere, and 6-foot-11 freshman Kameron Rooks can be molded into a contributor despite averaging just seven minutes a game in 2013-14. The Bears have another 6-foot-11 player in their current recruiting haul, three-star Los Angeles prospect Idrissa Diallo. And Martin demonstrated some auspicious, cold-blooded maneuvering by immediately orchestrating a commitment switch for 7-foot-1 Kingsley Okoroh, who flipped from Tennessee to Cal upon then news of Martin's hiring. Matthews and Bird constitute a solid backcourt/wing combo for the future and the young big men represent some serious size, and a program like Cal can never have too much of that. Again, if he takes great care with the changes he makes, Martin might have some decent raw material left.

He'll need it. He led Tennessee to the Sweet 16 this year and has a career record of 124-82. Those who declare Martin to be a coveted coaching prospect . . . well, guess we'll take your word for it. Martin should be prepared to be out-coached for a bit in his new spot. The Pac-12 probably will feature three bad teams next year (Oregon State, Washington State and Arizona State) and everyone else will be good and/or a contender for an NCAA tournament invite. Arizona, UCLA and Oregon are entrenched. Andy Enfield and USC are just getting started. Utah is on the rise. Tad Boyle knows what he's doing at Colorado. Maybe Stanford will see a dip after an NCAA tournament berth, maybe Washington has plateaued, but they're going to be competitive. It's a quality league with quality coaches. Martin will take his lumps.

Everyone understands why Martin left Tennessee. He wasn't Bruce Pearl, with Tennessee fans constantly offering that reminder -- most notably in a petition thousands signed just this winter to bring Pearl back. Martin felt so obliged to the program that his former athletic director, Dave Hart, said he didn't know Martin was involved with Cal until Tuesday morning.

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