The League: First-year coaches finding success


In this Jan. 14, 2012, file photo, Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin, center, talks with Cameron Tatum (23) and Skylar McBee (13) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Kentucky in Knoxville, Tenn. (The Associated Press)

Published: Friday, January 27, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 26, 2012 at 9:56 p.m.

So much for the transition season.

Coaches usually endure their share of setbacks in their first season with a new team. But first-year Arkansas coach Mike Anderson and first-year Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin scored a pair of big non-conference wins last weekend that helped the Southeastern Conference.

Arkansas built a 20-point first-half lead before holding on to beat No. 20 Michigan 66-64. And Tennessee upset No. 13 Connecticut 60-57 with a strong second-half effort.

“Hopefully it gave us some exposure in terms of we have some very good teams in our league,” Anderson said. “Kentucky, Florida, it's not just top-heavy. I think it's a competitive league, and it will only get better.”

At Arkansas, Anderson inherited one of the top incoming freshman classes in the nation. The class has made an immediate impact. Freshman guard B.J. Young scored a team-high 15 points for Arkansas before injuring his neck on a hard foul with eight minutes remaining. Freshman forward Hunter Mickelson added 11 points and a big blocked shot in the closing minutes.

“To win games of those magnitude against the Big Ten and Tennessee against UConn, we've got a good league and we've got some good coaches,” Anderson said. “You look at some of those teams and they are young teams as well.”

At Tennessee, Martin is relying on players even younger. On a hunch, Martin penciled 18-year-old freshman forward Jarnell Stokes into the lineup for his first career start against Connecticut.

Stokes responded with a double-double (16 points, 12 rebounds) to lead the Vols to the win.

The 6-foot-8, 250-pound Stokes graduated high school early in December to enroll at Tennessee. He turned 18 on Jan. 7 and had appeared in just two previous games.

“It was the right time,” Martin said. “I felt like it was the right thing to do because of his presence around the basket, facing up making plays, his ability to make plays when the double-team presents itself. I just felt like he was ready.”

With Stokes and 6-foot-7, 265-pound Jeronne Maymon, Tennessee now boasts one of the more physical frontlines in the conference.

The Vols are still having issues winning on the road, but have improved their play at Thompson-Boling Arena.

Martin said during the non-conference season, the Vols weren't physically and mentally prepared to win on the road. But with the addition of Stokes, his confidence in his team in growing.

“Now we're at least ready and equipped to win games (on the road),” Martin said. “Now it's just a matter of finishing the job.”

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