KNOXVILLE — Neither game ended with a win.
What the close calls against two ranked teams might have done for the Tennessee basketball Volunteers, though, is signal an end to the trial period and surpassed their coach's expectations.
The Vols fell to 18th-ranked Mississippi State and second-ranked Kentucky by a combined seven points, and first-year coach Cuonzo Martin admitted Monday that he felt his team is further along than he thought it would be at this point in the season.
"My gauge as a coach wasn't necessarily winning and losing ballgames," he said. "You'd like to win every game, but I think the level the guys are playing at and how they're competing ... once they realize they can play against the best in the country, then they take another step.
"That's when you're really making the necessary strides to becoming a great program, when those guys feel that and believe that."
The next stride in the process that Martin's repeatedly referenced throughout the season is winning a road game. The Vols (8-9, 1-2 SEC) have a chance to do that tonight at Georgia, which is looking for its first league win this season. UT had a chance to tie or win on its final possession against Mississippi State the last time it went on the road.
Since a poor showing against Memphis, Martin's Vols have played closer to his preferred style, which begins and ends with tough defense. Martin prefers final scores in the 60s, and UT has allowed an average of 61 points in its three SEC games -- all against ranked teams. Offensively, it's become more of a focus to get the ball inside to forwards Jeronne Maymon, Kenny Hall and now freshman Jarnell Stokes.
How the Vols got to this improved point had some bumps, such as losses to mid-major opponents Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston.
"Our guys are playing the way we as a staff would like to see them play," Martin said, "but when you get out of the gates early in the season, for me as a coach I go back to I really didn't know the guys. The first time I learn them or figure them out, we're playing in live games, then we go five, six, seven games where you make subtle adjustments because this guy probably isn't as good at this position as you thought, this guy doesn't work as hard as you thought and the games don't stop.
"I think our guys are starting to play the way we as a staff envisioned our guys could play, especially on defense."
Martin uses the "two-way street" term quite often, and it applies to his team learning and adjusting to Martin's system while the staff learned the players' tendencies and abilities. Hall, UT's junior center, said Monday the Vols have developed trust with their new staff.
"It's just really these guys doing it and being consistent with it," Martin said. "When you have a new system, especially with returning guys, it's not easy because you're set in your ways, you're accustomed to doing something certain ways and all of the sudden that changes. It's hard for a young guy to change. Most athletes are creatures of habit.
"There's a level of resistance, whether it's good or bad, to change, and that's fine with me as a coach. But you stick to what you're doing as a program."
What the Vols haven't done since Martin took over the program is win in another team's gym.
"Road games are sweet," Hall said. "We have to protect our house, but at the same time, we have to go on the road and execute as well in a whole other environment. The whole crowd is against us and we're all we've got."
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 ...
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