KNOXVILLE -- Cuonzo Martin has learned a lot about his Tennessee basketball team since taking over as coach in March, but he'll probably learn more about the new-look Volunteers in the next month than he did during the previous seven.
Tennessee begins a new era tonight when it hosts UNC Greensboro in the season opener at Thompson-Boling Arena. The only evidence to help anyone know what to expect are two exhibition wins against Carson-Newman and Lincoln Memorial, a pair of nearby Division II schools.
"I think there's so many unknowns because, once again, you have to go through it in order to find out what you are as a team," Martin said Wednesday. "You have to hit that tough spot, that rough patch where you've lost a couple games. How do guys respond, who's pointing fingers, who's not defending, who's not making shots, who missed the big shot that lost the game? Then you kind of see what guys are in the locker room. Who's still leading the team?
"This is a new team. This is a whole new ball club."
In addition to 75 percent of the scoring and 79 percent of the rebounding, the high expectations the program experienced in former coach Bruce Pearl's six seasons are mostly gone. The Vols were picked to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference by the league's media, and the six-season streak of NCAA tournament appearances is in the hands of an untested, inexperienced group. The schedule does UT no favors, either.
SEC East Division rivals Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida are in the preseason top 10. Defending national champion Connecticut, 10th-ranked Pittsburgh and 11th-ranked Memphis also are on the schedule. In 10 days, UT opens up a loaded Maui Invitational field (Michigan, Memphis, Kansas, UCLA and Georgetown) against sixth-ranked Duke.
"Any time you go through the fire and the difficulties on the floor, it helps you to see where guys are at and help each other push each other through different tough situations," junior guard Skylar McBee said. "That's only going to get better as the season progresses. The more trials and tribulations we go through as a team and come through successful, the more confidence everybody is going to have."
Most of UT's questions are on offense. Cameron Tatum, at 8.8 points per game last season, is the Vols' leading returning scorer. Who will be UT's leading scorer, crunch-time go-to guy and post scorer remains to be seen. The Vols took 62 3-pointers in the two exhibition games, but they intend for the identity to be on the defensive end.
Martin learned defense under former Purdue coach Gene Keady, and his expectation is that will help the Vols stay in games while they find themselves offensively.
"That's a mainstay for us," he said. "When you win games and have a level of success, then you have some confidence and now all of the sudden guys flow. You lose some games, now there's self-doubt, complacency sets in, nervous energy, hesitancy and all those things take place.
"For us, it's really one game at a time. I don't want the guys to put that pressure on themselves. I just want them to go out there and play, and whatever happens happens."
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...