New-look Vols hungry to prove doubters wrong
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)
It might be hard to recognize the Tennessee program this season if it weren't for the bright orange uniforms.
The Volunteers have a new coach in Cuonzo Martin, five new scholarship players and new offensive and defensive schemes. They've still got the desire to show they belong among the Southeastern Conference's top teams, even if others have counted them out before the season has begun.
''Last year, it's made us hungry,'' senior guard Cameron Tatum said. ''We've got a guy who's just as hungry as we are. I think that's a good combination.''
Gone is Bruce Pearl, the animated coach that led the Vols to their first No. 1 ranking and first trip to the NCAA regional finals in his six seasons. Forward Tobias Harris and guard Scotty Hopson left early to enter the NBA draft, and four other seniors who saw regular playing time have graduated.
Tennessee is also without the black cloud that hung over it all last season thanks to an NCAA investigation into recruiting under Pearl and his staff. Pearl acknowledged lying to investigators last September about improperly hosting recruits at his home and was fired March 21, three days after the Vols lost 75-45 in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Martin has seen no linger effects from last season's drama.
''I haven't seen it. I think what has happened is you've got incoming guys of freshman and (transfer) Dwight Miller but then you also have returning guys who didn't play a lot outside of Cameron Tatum. You have a situation where those guys are probably hungry to be successful,'' Martin said.
All the newness surrounding Tennessee has left others doubting the program will return to the heights reached under Pearl. Though they were among the SEC favorites nearly every year in Pearl's tenure, the Vols were picked by a panel of media voters to finish 11th out of 12 teams in the league this year.
Tatum cautions that the changes at Tennessee don't equate to a drop in standards.
''Sometimes change is for the better,'' he said. ''Everybody here talks about the discipline with Coach. Some of the guys on the team including myself needed that. You will probably sense a drastic change in a lot of people's game. You'll probably be like, `What did he do this summer that got him so much better?'''
What Martin did to improve the Vols during the summer was put them through workouts far more intense than the veterans were accustomed to in an effort to increase all players' speed, strength and chemistry.
''We've been working hard in the offseason,'' junior guard Skylar McBee said. ''I think it's really going to pay off. We're doing everything we can to put ourselves in the best position to be able to win, and I think we're doing a great job right now.''
Martin filled out the lineup with new players at every position.
Freshmen Quinton Chievous and Josh Richardson will join McBee, Tatum and sophomore Jordan McRae at shooting guard, while freshman Wes Washpun will compete with sophomore Trae Golden at the point guard position. Miller, a junior who transferred from Midland College in Texas, and Yemi Makanjuola will add depth to the post game with juniors Kenny Hall and Jeronne Maymon and senior Renaldo Woolridge.
Martin is working to install a basic form of the motion-style offense that helped Missouri State become the Missouri Valley Conference's top scoring team in his second of three seasons there and a high-pressure defense that was characteristic of Pearl's first few Tennessee squads.
For now, Martin wants to see players start to compete for starting roles. He expects to have a rotation of eight or nine guys but is waiting to see who will stand out among those players.
''I think the two younger guys, Jordan McRae and Kenny Hall, those guys have done a good job to try to be leaders, and that's not an easy thing to do when you've got a situation when you're friends with everybody,'' Martin said. ''The thing I try to explain to those guys is you can still be friends and be a leader but you can't compromise right and wrong in that locker room. We have to get those guys in the locker room saying the same things I'm saying on the floor. When we get that done, we've got a chance to be successful.''