published Thursday, March 22nd, 2012

UT basketball impressed in Cuonzo Martin's first season

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin
Photo by Associated Press.

ROCKY TOPS

1. Jarnell Stokes joins the Vols. UT coach Cuonzo Martin made his first big splash by going into Memphis and landing the five-star forward, who needed only a week of practice and three games to earn a starting role.

2. Sweeping the Gators. Coming off a blowout loss at Memphis, the Vols stunned Florida in the SEC opener in Knoxville. A month later, UT picked up its first road win of the year by taking out the Gators in Gainesville with perhaps their strongest performance of the year.

3. SEC-ond place finish. After beginning 2-5 in league play, UT ran off eight wins in nine games. An emotional win against Vanderbilt before a sellout crowd in Knoxville in the regular-season finale gave the Vols a second-place SEC finish.


ROCKY BOTTOMS

1. Austin Peay. The Vols blew an 11-point second-half lead in a stunning loss to the Governors, who were 1-9 at the time and finished sixth in the Ohio Valley Conference.

2. New Orleans blues. UT entered the SEC as the second seed and a chance to potentially play its way into the NCAA tournament. A disappointing overtime loss to Ole Miss in the SEC quarterfinals relegated the Vols to the NIT.

3. Middle is the end. It's not that UT's season ended against Middle Tennessee State, but it was how. The Vols went scoreless in the last 7:11 as the Blue Raiders finished on a 15-0 run.

KNOXVILLE — Jeronne Maymon admitted he felt some uncertainty last October.

Tennessee's basketball Volunteers had begun preseason practice, and the junior forward was one of the many unproven commodities. They were picked to finish 11th in the Southeastern Conference in a vote of the league's coaches at media days.

Roughly five months later, however, the Vols had matched last season's win total (19) and were playing postseason basketball.

"We became a family," Maymon said after UT's season ended Monday night in a loss to Middle Tennessee State in the National Invitation Tournament's second round. "We really started trusting each other and really buying into what Coach [Cuonzo] Martin was selling.

"I didn't doubt it, but I didn't know how the season would move or how we would jell together. But I knew there was something special about us because of how we hung out together. We just became a brotherhood."

Martin's first Vols team had to replace 75 percent of the scoring and 79 percent of the rebounding from last season. He admitted throughout the season that it took time for the players and coaching staff to figure each other out. That process took nearly half the season and hit many bumps along the way.

After a respectable showing in the Maui Invitational, UT dropped road games at Oakland and College of Charleston. After another home loss to underachieving Pittsburgh, the Vols hit rock bottom in a loss to Austin Peay.

But Christmas came early for the the Vols , who were 4-6 at the time.

Five-star forward Jarnell Stokes picked the Vols on Dec. 22 and enrolled at UT a couple of weeks later, having graduated early from Memphis' Southwind High School. In his debut against top-ranked Kentucky, he scored on a beautiful running hook shot the first time he touched the ball. The 6-foot-8, 260-pounder had 16 points and 12 rebounds in UT's win against defending national champion Connecticut in his third game and averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds this season.

"I realize I've got to get better," Stokes said. "I can't get complacent. Every game I have to go harder than my last game.

"I feel like this season was a blessing for me because it was definitely going down the drain [until] all of the sudden God opened up Tennessee for me and I was able to finish out this season. I hate that it ended early, but next year I think we'll be one of the top teams in the nation."

Stokes is not alone in buying stock in the Vols. The late-season surge that ended with a second-place finish in the SEC and the return of Maymon, Stokes and point guard Trae Golden have created some optimism for Martin's second season. The objective -- making the NCAA tournament -- might be the same, but the expectations will be to get there.

"From where they started to the end, I saw progress," Martin said. "I saw guys get better without a doubt. I thought our guys did a good job as a team of continuing to get better.

"This team has a chance to be special if they continue to work hard. You've got to continue to take those next steps, and this spring and summer will be big for our guys."

Despite some low points and a disappointing ending, this season was also important for the Vols as they learned Martin's expectations for the program on and off the floor. They transitioned to their coach's desired style of intense defense, the brand Martin wants for his program. The Vols' scoring defense (61.6 points per game) in SEC play was the program's best in more than 40 seasons.

While Stokes' addition boosted the team, most of the players improved individually as the season progressed. Golden developed into a solid point guard, and Maymon became the team's most consistent scorer, offensive facilitator and leading rebounder. Jordan McRae turned into more of an all-around player, Skylar McBee added tough-minded defense to his 3-point stroke and freshman Josh Richardson filled a role as a valuable perimeter defender.

Cameron Tatum, one of UT's two seniors, was the only player to start all 34 games despite periodic offensive woes. A redshirting freshman on UT's 2008 SEC title team and a valuable asset off the bench during UT's 2010 Elite Eight run, Tatum will take positive memories from this season, though it's the only one of his career that didn't end in the NCAA tournament.

"Just the way this team came together and fought for each other on and off the court and got better as a team," he said. "We were picked to finish 11th, and we proved a lot of people wrong and proved that we could be a good team and proved and showed that Coach Martin is a good coach and a good hire for this program. I feel like the sky's the limit for years to come for them.

"They've got a lot of talent. Coach is going to do a good job recruiting, and more important than anything, Coach does a great job of developing players. I think that's the best way to have a good program is to develop players, and he does a great job of doing that, him and his coaching staff."

That October uncertainty has turned into March optimism.

"I think we should be one of the top teams in the nation next year," Stokes said. "I think with all the pieces we have, we should put Tennessee back on the map."

about Patrick Brown...

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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