KNOXVILLE — When senior center Brian Williams learned that the Tennessee men’s basketball team was voted No. 20 and No. 23 in the two major preseason polls, he said the Volunteers were “shocked.”
In the players’ minds, UT lost three solid seniors from an Elite Eight team in forward Wayne Chism, wing J.P. Prince and point guard Bobby Maze. But the Vols returned everyone else and added one of the nation’s highest-rated signing classes in forward Tobias Harris, wing Jordan McRae and point guard Trae Golden.
But Williams admitted they were “shocked” again Monday night, when they lost an exhibition game to Division II Indianapolis.
“Maybe we’re not as good as we thought we were, or as good as we should be,” Williams said he thought Monday night.
That doesn’t mean the Vols can’t get there, though, coach Bruce Pearl said after Thursday night’s practice.
“I know that this is a basketball team that’s going to get a lot better,” Pearl said. “We’ve got a lot of good players, but it’s going to take a lot of contests and exposure. ... We got exposed Monday. Now, I would have rather gotten beat and gotten exposed two weeks ago instead of four days before our first game, but we got exposed.
“And so now, what we do about it and how quickly we can recover from it will be determined.”
The Vols hope to recover quickly. They open their regular season tonight at 9 against UT-Chattanooga.
“Ready or not, here it comes,” Pearl said. “I don’t need to be any more anxious. It’s for real now. We’ll see where we’re at tomorrow night. Win, lose or draw, we’ll see where we’re at. ... You put the games on the schedule, and then you play them, and then one team wins and other team loses, and then you know where you’re at.
“I have no expectations right now. Well, my [only] expectation is we better be a lot better in order to beat Chattanooga than we were against Indianapolis.”
Senior point guard Melvin Goins said Monday night was “humbling and embarrassing.”
“We look good on paper, but we have to put it on the court,” Goins added. “It was a good experience for us.”
Good, but painful, Williams said.
“It was definitely an eye-opener,” said the 6-foot-10 senior from the Bronx. “But the great thing about that is it’s not on our record, but it’s still on our minds. I’m glad it happened at the beginning.”
Junior guard Cameron Tatum said “last season is over with, but we’ve still got the target on our backs.”
“We can’t just expect people to lay down for us because our uniforms say ‘Tennessee,’” Tatum added. “We’ve got to bring it every single night, because everybody wants to beat Tennessee.
Tonight is certainly no exception. Tatum, Williams and senior forward Steven Pearl were on the UT team that escaped from McKenzie Arena with a 76-70 win on Dec. 4, 2007.
“People always want to knock off the top dog, and we’re the top dog,” Tatum said. “We’re the supposed big-time program in this state. We’re always Tennessee, and people always love to beat us.”
Especially in-state teams. Especially in-state teams from the same system.
“I know they wanted to be recruited to come here, so it’s ... a chip on their shoulder, trying to show why they should be here,” Williams said. “Every Tennessee team wants to beat us. But losing to an in-state is something we definitely never want to do, either.”