KNOXVILLE - So much for an easy season opener.
Instead of a home game against a mid-major conference opponent, Tennessee instead is taking the difficult route.
The basketball Volunteers open a season of big expectations on the road at Xavier, a name program that missed out on the NCAA tournament for only the second time in 13 seasons a year ago.
Tennessee, aiming to snap a two-year tournament drought and state its case for a national ranking, is hoping to take advantage and notch a notable win to start Cuonzo Martin's third season as coach.
"It's very important. We have to have this first one," Jeronne Maymon said Monday evening as the Vols left for Cincinnati. "I don't want to say it sets up the rest of the season, but it's going to be a big part of that. We want to get out the gates strong and see where we go from there."
Slow starts have negated surges in Southeastern Conference play and relegated Tennessee to the National Invitation Tournament in Martin's first two years. Two years ago, the Vols lost early-season games to Oakland, Austin Peay and College of Charleston. Last season, it was more about missed opportunities, as Tennessee lost to Oklahoma State and dropped road games at Georgetown and Virginia.
Between the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament visits from Virginia and North Carolina State and a trip to Wichita State, the Vols will get more chances out of conference this season, but tonight will provide a good barometer.
"It's a big test for us, so everybody's looking forward to it," said Jordan McRae, the Vols' leading scorer last season.
"It's the first game. We don't want to go out 0-1. We definitely want to go out of this game having confidence coming here for our first game here on Saturday."
The Vols will be home for three games against South Carolina-Upstate (Saturday), The Citadel (Nov. 18) and Tennessee State (Nov. 22) before they head to the Bahamas, where they will open with UTEP and could face Xavier in the second game in a tournament that includes Kansas, Villanova, Wake Forest, Southern California and Iowa.
With Maymon back after missing last season, McRae and big man Jarnell Stokes coming off All-SEC seasons and a blend of returning players and newcomers filling other roles, this should be Martin's best team, and deciding to play a challenging opener ought to prove that notion.
That also means the expectations are higher than they've been in his first two years.
"I think it's safe to say since I've been here," he said. "That part is understood, because your talent level is a little bit different than in previous years. You probably have more than you had in previous years, but as a coach you have to focus on the task at hand and put your team in the best situation to be successful."
Success tonight, in a hostile environment against a program that always is tough to beat, would be a good sign of what's to come this season for the Vols.
"We have a lot of seniors back, we have a lot of tough juniors and we have some really gritty freshmen," Maymon said, "so I think we have the pieces and the chemistry to do it."
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