Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin talks about the upcoming basketball season during the team’s media day in Knoxville on Monday. (AP Photo)
KNOXVILLE — Tennessee’s hopes of finishing the season in the NCAA tournament could depend on whether the Volunteers get off to a faster start.
Each of the last two years, Tennessee has come on strong down the stretch but failed to earn an NCAA bid because of its early-season struggles. The Vols believe they have enough talent in place to avoid that fate this season.
“That’s really what we’re trying to concentrate on this year,” senior guard Jordan McRae said. “We’re trying to start off way better and faster than we have in the past. That just goes to us as the seniors, to make sure we don’t get off to a slow start like we have in the past.”
Tennessee brings back three of its top four scorers from a team that went 20-13 and made a second straight NIT appearance last season. McRae is back after earning first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors, and second-team All-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes also returns.
Memphis transfer Antonio Barton steps in at point guard to replace Trae Golden, who left for Georgia Tech. The Vols welcome back senior forward Jeronne Maymon, a second-team All-SEC pick in 2011-12 who redshirted last season with an injured left knee.
Tennessee opens the season Nov. 12 at Xavier.
“Health-wise, I’m 100 percent,” Maymon said. “As far as my game, that’s still a work in progress. I’m still shaking off the rust.”
Tennessee also adds a freshman class that features highly touted guard Robert Hubbs III and swingman A.J. Davis, the son of former NBA forward Antonio Davis. Darius Thompson should provide some needed depth at point guard.
“When you’re trying to win championships and cut nets down, you have to have the personnel to do that,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “You have to be talented enough. You can work hard. You can compete. You can be in games. You can be tough. But you have to have the talent and personnel to try to win it in the end. I think we have the talent to do that, but again, staying healthy, playing together and understanding roles will be big for our guys.”
Last season, Tennessee was 11-10 overall and 3-6 in the SEC after a Feb. 6 home loss to Georgia. The Vols then won nine of their next 10 games before ending the season by falling to Alabama in the SEC tournament quarterfinals and to Mercer in the first round of the NIT.
In Martin’s first year on the job, Tennessee was 8-10 overall and 1-3 in the SEC before a late-season surge. The Vols finished that year 19-15 overall and 10-6 in the conference with a second-round NIT appearance.
“That’s a terrible feeling, having to play in the NIT when you expect to be an NCAA team,” Stokes said.
Tennessee had explanations for its slow starts the last two years. The 2011-12 team was adapting to a new coach and a new system. Last year, the Vols didn’t expect Maymon would have to sit out the entire season.
The Vols have no excuses this year.
They know what to expect from Martin, now in his third season. They’ve adopted the team slogan “A Tougher Breed” to show how they’ve taken to Martin’s blue-collar approach. They have more depth and experience than Martin’s two previous teams. Now they need to have more success at the start of the season.
“We’re definitely well aware of what we’ve done in the past years,” Stokes said. “That gives us more motivation this year to come out swinging. Win early. We don’t want to get into a situation where we put it in the selection committee’s hands. We want to be sitting on Selection Sunday wondering who we’re playing and where we’ll be seeded instead of will we be in or will we not be in.”