Kevin Stallings and Cuonzo Martin have a lot of similarities.
They both hail from the St. Louis area. They both played for and coached under legendary coach Gene Keady at Purdue. Schools in the Missouri Valley Conference gave them their first head coaching jobs. Both “moved up” in their careers by landing posts in the Southeastern Conference.
Yet, even with similar backgrounds, the two have never coached against each other.
That changes on Tuesday.
Martin, in his first year as the head coach of Tennessee, brings his Volunteers to Nashville and Memorial Gymnasium (6 p.m., ESPNU) for a matchup with Stallings and Vanderbilt.
Despite both being in the “Purdue family,” their shared history isn’t long as thanks to an 11-year age difference. But Martin occasionally will bump into Stallings on the recruiting trail, at Purdue functions or when coaches gather at the Final Four, where Stallings is usually found with another former Purdue assistant, Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
“He spends a lot of time with his team and his family and I am the same way,” Martin, 40, said. “But whenever we see each other it has always been great. He is a good man.”
Martin and Stallings grew up in Illinois towns separated by just 13 miles.
Stallings was raised in Collinsville and on Saturday his alma mater became just the third high school boys basketball program in the country to win 2,000 games. Martin was brought up in East St. Louis. Both towns are just across from St. Louis, on the other side of the Mississippi River.
The 51-year-old Stallings graduated from Purdue in 1982, 13 years before Martin wrapped up his playing career with the Boilermakers. Stallings spent six years on Keady’s staff before serving as an assistant at Kansas and then taking his first head coaching job at Illinois State in 1994. After becoming the first coach to win back-to-back regular season and conference tournament championships in the Missouri Valley, he took over at Vanderbilt in 1999.
“He is one of the best coaches in the game, regardless of what level, what league he is coaching,” Martin said. “He has a great understanding for the game. He puts his guys in position to be successful and he does a great job recruiting. I think he is underappreciated from a recruiting standpoint.”
After playing in the NBA and overseas, Martin returned to Purdue in 2000. He served as an assistant for Keady and then for Matt Painter. In 2008, he earned his first head coaching gig at Missouri State. After three successful years in the basketball rich Missouri Valley, he took over at Tennessee last March.
“He has really done well for himself,” Stallings said. “I know Coach Keady is particularly proud of him. The people I am very, very close to who where a part of the [Purdue] program still when Cuonzo was there always spoke very highly of him. He is doing a terrific job with their program [at Tennessee]. I think their team plays the right way, and acts the right way.”
A program with a lot of new faces, Martin has turned the Vols into a competitive program. Though they are just 9-10 and 1-3 in the SEC, all three league losses have been by fewer than four points, including close setbacks against then-No. 20 Mississippi State and then No. 2 Kentucky in a 48-hour span.
Tennessee does have two wins over ranked opponents, stunning Florida in the SEC opener and quieting defending national champ and then-No. 13 Connecticut on Saturday.
But long before he took over at Tennessee, Martin won over the respect and admiration of the coaching community by what he accomplished off the court. In 1997, he was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and underwent treatment on a malignant tumor between his heart and lungs. His last treatment was nearly 14 years ago and is in full remission.
“He is a tough guy. He is a battler,” Stallings said. “That is the way he played and that is the way he coaches.”
• Tennessee holds the upperhand in the recent history of the series.
The Volunteers have won four of the last six, dating back to 2008-09. They swept the season series last year as Vanderbilt blew double-digit leads in both games.
“I think about it,” Vanderbilt senior forward Lance Goulbourne said. “You remember last year, which you don’t want to dwell on it too much. It just adds a little bit of extra motivation.”
• The Volunteers have three players scoring in double figures — guard Trae Golden (13.6 ppg) and post players Jarnell Stokes (12.0) and Jeronne Maymon (11.4).
Stokes has played in just three games as he graduated early from Southwind High School in Memphis last month. The 6-foot-8, 250-pounder has made an enormous difference, making 15 of his 24 shots and leading the team with an average of eight rebounds.
• Martin is familiar with Vanderbilt guard John Jenkins, who leads the SEC in scoring with 19.8 points per game.
Jenkins played for Team USA in the World University Games in China over the summer and Martin was an assistant coach.
“He is just a great guy,” Jenkins said. “I enjoyed playing for him and it was a great experience.”
• Vanderbilt (14-5, 4-1) will try to avoid losing back-to-back home games for the first time in three years.
The Commodores have lost four home games this season, also the most in three years. The last time they suffered five home losses in a season was during the 2005-06 season.
“I don’t want to lose any more home games. We’ve lost enough of them here,” Goulbourne said. “Not losing any more home games, not losing to Tennessee, not losing my last one against Tennessee here ... it will be a pretty big one for us.”