HOOVER, Ala. — Having Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan believe Tennessee might be the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference this season brought a brief but proud smile to Cuonzo Martin on Thursday afternoon.
"You're obviously humbled by it," the Volunteers' second-year coach said during the SEC's basketball media event at the Wynfrey Hotel.
"It's a compliment to your team for doing things the right way the previous season. But there's still plenty of work to be done."
Some would say the hardest work was done last season, when Martin took a team chosen 11th out of 12 league schools in the preseason poll and finished tied for second in the SEC with a 10-6 conference mark and 19-15 overall record.
With four starters back -- including preseason first-team All-SEC pick Jarnell Stokes and second team selection Jeronne Maymon -- a solid recruiting class and 6-foot-9 post player Kenny Hall returned from suspension, Martin's second UT squad recently was voted fourth in the new 14-team SEC.
"The way they play, you have a chance to win a championship," said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who won last year's NCAA championship.
"They defend, they take good shots. They have great toughness."
Calipari then asked if UK had to play the Vols twice this season under the league's new 18-game schedule. Told yes, he sighed, "Ge-e-e-ez."
And the Wildcats have topped the Vols six of the seven times that Coach Cal has faced them.
"Cuonzo Martin teams are just tough," said Missouri coach Frank Haith, who faced Martin's last Missouri State team in the NIT when Haith was at Miami. "They compete; they're hard-nosed. They play so hard for every second of the game."
Donovan admires the Vols' toughness, but what he likes best about the Vols is their experience, which includes two victories over the Gators last season.
"You just know more about them," he said of a team that finished second in the league in rebounding and field-goal defense and third in scoring defense. "You know what they have coming back."
Martin hopes he knows how those players will play.
"I like to think that if you asked me 10 years from now what our strengths are, I would say what I'm saying today -- playing hard and defending at a high level," he said. "Those should never go away."
If they don't, don't expect the Vols to fall too far from the top of the SEC.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...