The Volunteers expect that to change this season.
Tennessee opens practice today with six of the top seven scorers back from a team that went 19-15 overall and 10-6 in the Southeastern Conference last season. The Vols reached the NIT last year to end a string of six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, but they’re ready to start a new streak this season.
“What we expect of ourselves is to finish No. 1 and be the last team standing,” senior forward Kenny Hall said. “That’s pretty much it right there. We’ve definitely got the talent on the team, we’ve got the staff on the team, we’ve got a great strength and conditioning coach to prepare us and get us ready for the season. Now it’s just time to put it all together. Once we get rolling, we’re rolling.”
In order to earn an NCAA bid, the Vols will have to avoid a repeat of the slow start that led to their absence from last year’s field. Tennessee dropped six of its first nine games — including losses to Oakland and Austin Peay — before turning things around.
Tennessee opens the season Nov. 9 against Kennesaw State.
“We’re just going to play every game like it’s our last and let the chips fall where they may,” junior guard Trae Golden said. “I think we learned last year that you have to be on your Ps and Qs at the beginning of the year as well as at the end of the year. That’s something we’re going to make sure we do.”
Part of the reason for that early slump was that the Vols were still adjusting to Martin, who brought his motion offense to Tennessee last season after a three-year stint at Missouri State. The Vols now are more comfortable with Martin and his system. They also grew closer during a summer tour of Italy.
“Not everyone on the team was close,” sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes said. “Now I feel like we’re coming together as a team. Italy helped that because we were around each other 10 days, 24-7. It forced us to become a team.”
Another bonus is that Tennessee should have Stokes for an entire season. Stokes didn’t join the team until midseason last year, but he averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in 17 games. This summer, Stokes was the second-leading scorer and rebounder on the USA Basketball team that won the gold medal at the 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Brazil.
“This was a different team with the addition of Jarnell Stokes,” Martin said. “Before Jarnell Stokes (last season), you had a team that was unproven, I don’t think a team that played well together. Guys I think were playing for themselves, so to speak. I don’t say that in a bad way. But the spotlight, the light’s on them, (they’re thinking), ‘Man, I’ve got a chance to shine.’ And the result is you’re losing games because you don’t understand how hard you have to play, what you have to do and what you have to sacrifice in order to be successful. But I think they grew as a team as the season went on.
“And then you also have an elite player in Jarnell Stokes. In order to compete at this level, you need two or three guys like that on your roster, in order to win big games.”
The Vols might have that in Stokes and 6-foot-7 senior Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds last season to earn second-team all-SEC honors. Stokes, Maymon, Hall and sophomore center Yemi Makanjuola should give Tennessee one of the SEC’s deepest and strongest frontcourts.
“We’re very diverse,” Maymon said. “I think we’ve got one of the best frontcourts in the country.”
Tennessee’s backcourt returns Golden, who led the Vols with 13.6 points per game and ranked fourth in the SEC with 4.5 assists per game last year. Senior guard Skylar McBee and junior guard Jordan McRae each started at least 12 games last season.
The Vols must take better care of the ball after averaging 13.7 turnovers per game last year. If they reduce that total, they shouldn’t have to settle for the NIT this season.
“Our goal is the same as last year, to win the SEC,” McRae said. “I think that’s every team’s goal in the SEC, to do that. I feel like this year, we’re saying it with a lot more confidence than we were last year.”