KNOXVILLE — Cuonzo Martin had to spend last summer in the dark about how his Tennessee basketball team would look entering his first season.
A rule change assures the Volunteers coach will know more than he already does about year two.
The NCAA passed legislation in January allowing for more player access in the summer, and with UT taking its allotted overseas trip to Italy in August, Martin could get an even better grasp on a team that returns all but one key player from last season's NIT team.
"I think that'll be great for our guys," Martin said Wednesday morning. "We'll have a lot of time to be with our team, and I think it'll really help us. I think for us as a staff, it's a balance of not overworking guys, if there is such a thing.
"You have an opportunity to keep your guys on campus, because when they go away from you, especially those elite guys, then all of the sudden you have people coming through the doors and things can happen."
Under the new rules, players can receive eight hours a week of on-court work conducted or supervised by an institutional staff member. No more than two hours of that work, though, can involve skill instruction. The maximum amount of time is eight weeks, and the NCAA put academic guidelines on the access.
Players must be enrolled in summer classes, though sophomores, junior and seniors can have a grade-point average of 2.2 or higher and successfully completed a certain percentage of their degree program to participate.
The Vols just completed spring individual workouts, though Trae Golden, Dwight Miller and Jeronne Maymon missed the sessions while recovering from various knee injuries.
"I thought our guys really made progress," Martin said. "They know how to play with each other, but you go into the end of spring and the summer months, you've got avoid the distractions [and] the pitfalls, so to speak and stay as a unit. I've seen teams that come back and have an opportunity, but all of a sudden somebody gets in those cracks and you fall apart as a team.
"I think barring injury for us, we should be ok."
In addition to the Italy trip, Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson will spend time away from Knoxville this summer.
Stokes, rising sophomore, will try out for the under-18 United States national team, which will compete in the FIBA Americas Championship in Brazil in June. The team, coached by Florida's Billy Donovan, will start training camp June 5 in Colorado Springs.
"I think it's great for him, just the work he's put in and the exposure for him and also the university and our program. I'd like to think he'll make that team if he continues to work hard. I think it's great, because when you put yourself in that type of company, it means you're making progress as an individual player."
The 6-foot-8 forward, who's on a roster with 17 high-school players, averaged 9.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game after enrolling at UT in January.
"Just seeing him from the finish of the season until now ... he's gotten really good," Martin said. "He's working extremely hard. His body's chiseled. If he continues at that pace, he should be a really good player."
Richardson, also a rising sophomore, will spend more than two weeks touring with Athletes in Action on its exhibition tour in Germany and Poland. The 6-foot-6 wing averaged just 2.9 points and 1.4 rebounds in 16 minutes per game as a freshman, though he played in all 34 games with nine starts due to his defensive abilities.
"We don't force our guys to do those types of things," Martin said. "My thing is the summertime, guys learn at a different pace. Some guys like to get in the gym by themselves the whole summer. Some guys like to go play in events like this, and I think for him, he wants the opportunity to play against some good competition."
In the bonus
• Martin said recruiting has been the "main focus" for his coaching staff during the April evaluation period. "Right now we're just grinding," he said. "We've established the relationships, and this time of year you hone in on about 10 or 15 guys you really like." With Maymon, Kenny Hall and potentially Stokes, the frontcourt is an area the Vols will address in 2013.
• UT's new rule will force some walk-ons from last season off the bench and practice floor. Forward Rob Murphy and guard Brandon Lopez will hold spots next to UT's 13 scholarship players. Martin said the other returning walk-ons will remain in the program "in some form of capacity," likely as student assistants, managers or video coordinators.
• Martin said the new rule had no impact on point guard Cory Stanton's decision to transfer. The Springfield, Tenn., native transferred to UT in January after stops at Clemson and Lipscomb. He would not have been eligible until next January.
• UT's 2012-13 nonconference schedule is "75 percent" complete, Martin said. The coach added he hopes to have it complete in the next month. Martin hinted last month the Vols would be in Puerto Rico for a preseason tournament, and other potential marquee games include Memphis, Virginia and an undetermined Big East opponent in the SEC/Big East Invitational.
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 ...