KNOXVILLE - While a thin blanket of snow covered the ground in Knoxville, Tennessee's men's basketball team was 800 miles away, waking up to a picturesque view of the sun-drenched, sandy beaches of the Bahamas.
The Volunteers aren't in the Caribbean for the views, though.
For this edition of its annual early-season tournament, Tennessee is in the Battle 4 Atlantis, and the Vols will play the first of three games over the next three days in the nightcap of tonight's first-round games against UTEP.
In its second game Friday, Tennessee will face either Big Ten contender Iowa or Xavier, which is 5-0 and handed the Vols a season-opening loss in Cincinnati just 16 days ago, and the other half of the bracket includes four power-conference opponents, most notably second-ranked Kansas.
"I feel like we didn't have a very good showing against Xavier," Vols forward Jarnell Stokes said this week, "so this is our chance to sort of redeem ourselves.
"We're playing our style. We want to run and defend pretty good. We've been doing that pretty well, but the competition hasn't been as good as it will be going into this tournament, so I guess we'll just have to see then."
Since that loss to the Musketeers, Tennessee is unbeaten, though the wins came against South Carolina-Upstate, The Citadel and Tennessee State. Beyond this tournament, true non-conference statement games remain at Wichita State (Dec. 14) and against Virginia (Dec. 30). The Vols know it's a showcase event.
"These kinds of games, you really find out where your team is at, so I'm looking forward to it," said Jordan McRae, the reigning SEC player of the week who's led the Vols in scoring in all four games this season.
The non-conference portion of the schedule has let down Tennessee in its first two years under coach Cuonzo Martin, with missed opportunities or bad losses weighing down the Vols' strong finishes in a weak SEC.
Yet Martin is hardly focusing on anything other than how his team plays.
"For us, it's continuing to the things we do in practice," he said. "We've had success in shooting the ball. We have to be able to go inside-outside, utilize Jordan in a lot of situations, play off Jordan, utilize our big guys around the rim, get offensive rebounds and defend.
"Tennessee's had great exposure over the years. I think for us, it's just playing the way we're capable of playing. You've got to compete. You've got to play as hard as the calls of the officials will allow you to play and be as physical as you can be, execute your offense and let's go from there. For us, we're not consumed with the opponent. It's just how we're playing the game."
Tennessee has struggled on the road and in neutral-site games under Martin, so the Vols will need to rely on McRae to continue his scoring. The senior All-SEC player is averaging 21.5 points per game this season. The Vols also must hope they can maintain their early-season 3-point shooting percentage (44.4 percent).
"It's on a big stage," forward Jeronne Maymon said. "Coach Martin always says, 'The lights are on, you've got to take advantage of it.' It's a business trip. We're going to go out here and play every game like it's a one-and-done game."
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