KNOXVILLE -- Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin admits he's not a big reader, at least when it comes to what's being written about his basketball team.
That would explain why he missed what Kentucky coach John Calipari said about the Volunteers after the second-ranked Wildcats' close win in Knoxville on Saturday. It turns out the two coaches are in agreement.
Calipari ignored UT's 8-9 record an called the Vols an NCAA tournament team, and given how UT has played in its three SEC games, Martin said Monday he felt the same way
"Like I told our guys," said the first-year coach, "from Florida up until now, you say [we're] one of the 65 or 68 teams, I would say yes. But you have to put a lot of work to cover some ground. I would definitely say from the time we started league play up until now, when you pick 65 or 33, 35 [at-large] teams, I would say yes."
Since a loss at Memphis when they looked as bad as they have all season, the Vols have beaten a top-15 Florida team and gone toe-to-toe with 18th-ranked Mississippi State on the road and a Kentucky team loaded with NBA talent. UT has done it using Martin's style of tough, hard-nosed defense, holding the three ranked opponents to 44-percent shooting or less.
"You've got to buy into his system," said center Kenny Hall, who's averaging 11 points per game in SEC play. "We all bought into his system, and we've seen what it can do for us. [If] we continue to play hard and keep working and keep grinding out, amazing things can happen."
That has yet to translate into wins, though. UT has a chance at evening its league record and earning its first road win of the year at Georgia on Wednesday night. With a losing record, bad losses to Oakland and Austin Peay and an RPI of 181, there's too much ground and not enough season for the Vols to make a run at an at-large bid.
With that in mind, UT has taken on the nothing-to-lose mindset at the start of league play.
"It's a whole new season," said Hall, a junior. "We felt with our record, we were going into each game and we don't have anything to lose. We tell each other we need to step it up [because] this is the SEC, we don't have anything to lose and people don't expect us to win. So why not go out there and play as hard as we can? That's it."
Martin said freshman forward Jarnell Stokes, who had nine points and four rebounds in 17 minutes of his collegiate debut Saturday after practicing less than a week, will get more minutes as his conditioning allows.
UT used the powerful 6-foot-8 bruiser in spurts against Kentucky, and Martin hinted he'll use the same strategy in Athens on Wednesday. Stokes' natural skills carried him on the offensive end, but Martin noted how Stokes' teammates helped him defensively in his debut.
"They did a good job of communicating and helping him through situations and making him understand," Martin said. "This is a team and not a bunch of individuals. It's a credit to the guys that are currently on the team -- before he got here -- to make the adjustments necessary for him to be successful. These are good guys and they want to be successful.
"They understand what it means bringing a new guy in. They've done a great job of really embracing him."
Hall's embraced him enough already to have given him a nickname.
"I call him 'Big Future,'" Hall said. "He's going to be the future of this program. The kid is talented.
"It's funny because as big as he is, he's still a kid and he's still got the baby-faced look. But he's a man out there in the paint. We're going to expect big things from him this season."
Martin said he'll start incorporating forward Renaldo Woolridge more at UT's small-forward position, which would allow the Vols to play some combination of Stokes, Maymon and Hall at the power forward and center spots.
"He has to readjust his mind to really defending," Martin said. "I think that'll be the biggest adjustment for him -- guarding smaller guys off the dribble and chasing him off screens. I think it depends on more him than the opponent. You can put him in situations, especially right now, until he gets a feel for it."
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com or 901-581-7288. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/patrickbrowntfp.