INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Cuonzo Martin feels as if he’s spent his whole life getting to know Glenn Robinson III.
Now the Tennessee coach must figure out how to beat the Michigan star on Friday night.
“I’m happy for him and it will be fun playing against him,” Martin said Thursday. “Of course, we’d like to get the win, but I’m happy to see where he’s come, how far he’s come as a basketball player. He’s a great kid.”
For Martin, this is not just another basketball game. It’s a reunion of sorts and in his adopted home state of Indiana.
The Tennessee coach and Robinson’s father were roommates at Purdue. After college, the ex-teammates stayed in touch and have traded stories about the younger Robinson’s early life, even the times Robinson brought his newborn son to Martin’s apartment back in 1994. So when the younger Robinson emerged as a budding prep star, of course Martin wanted him to come to Tennessee.
Instead, Robinson went north and wound up in a regional semifinal showdown against one of his favorite college coaches.
“He’s a great family friend. I know my mom and grandma are close with him and his family,” Robinson III said. “Great guy, and it’s just funny how things work out.”
Three years ago, Martin left surging Missouri State to take over a Tennessee program reeling from an NCAA investigation.
Despite showing steady improvement, Martin’s job appeared to be in jeopardy as recently as mid-February. Anxious fans wondered how long Martin’s rebuilding project would take, if Martin was the right guy to complete the task and if the Volunteers (24-12) had the right players to make any sort of NCAA tournament noise — if they even got in.
Conventional wisdom suggested Tennessee would go out early.
But, Martin, a cancer survivor, proved the doubters wrong. He rallied his team for three straight victories, winning by margins of 13, 19 and 20 points, and earning a chance to cross paths with the Robinsons one more time. It’s no surprise to those who know Martin best.
“He’s really good at getting the best out of people,” Minnesota Timberwolves forward Robbie Hummel said, who was tutored by Martin at Purdue. “That’s what he excels at. Our freshman year, he was great at teaching us how to be successful early.”
But Friday night’s challenge may be the Volunteers’ toughest since their March 15 loss to SEC champion Florida.
A year ago, Michigan helped Robinson get to its first Final Four since the Fab Five — something his father and Martin never achieved at Purdue.
Since turning down a chance to enter the NBA draft, the younger Robinson has not disappointed. He helped propel the Wolverines (27-8) to their first outright Big Ten title in 28 years, led the Wolverines to their first Big Ten tournament title game since 1998 and now has second-seeded Michigan within two wins of back-to-back Final Fours.
Martin has kept track along the way.
Beating the 11th-seeded Volunteers would send Michigan into a Sunday contest against either eighth-seeded Kentucky or fourth-seeded Louisville, the last two national champs. Coach John Beilein knows it won’t be easy.
“I don’t know Cuonzo very much. I do know he played with Glenn Robinson Jr. and knowing that he comes from the Gene Keady, Matt Painter type of background, I know they’re going to guard,” Beilein said. “As they build their program, they’re going to build it off their defense.”
Michigan has relied primarily this season on a strong offense, which finished second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage (47.5), third in scoring (74.0) and has three double-digit scorers including Big Ten player of the year Nik Stauskas at 17.4 and Robinson at 13.1.
The Volunteers, however, have limited foes to 61.4 points, 41 percent shooting and have held 11 straight opponents to fewer than 70 points. Five of those teams couldn’t even top 50.
If Martin’s team can duplicate that effort Friday, the Volunteers would play in a regional championship for only the second time in school history and end everyone from Martin’s former boss, Purdue coach Matt Painter, to his former teammate, The Big Dog, will be watching to see if Martin can keep extend this remarkable run.
Everyone that is with the exception of the one guy Martin knows best.
“He has that same swagger, that same walk, everything is like his dad,” Martin said of Robinson III. “His dad played at the next level, and he will, too. He’s good but, you know, his dad was one of the best ever. ”
Coach Martin was also asked about playing for a hall of fame coach during his days at Purdue.
“I will never forget when he came to my home in east St. Louis,” Martin said. “I had a lot of coaches come in and sell different things and talk about different things. The things Coach Keady talked about were if you go to class everyday, you will get a degree. If you work hard, you will play and that was really it. There weren’t a lot of promises going on. At the time I wouldn’t say I appreciated it, but my mom, she liked it and she respected that. She said I think that you need to go to Purdue. It’s probably one of the greatest decisions I have ever made in my life.