KNOXVILLE -- Reaching the NCAA tournament has become the minimum standard for Tennessee's basketball program.
The Volunteers' two-year absence from college basketball's premier event only adds to the pressure to make it this year, but neither third-year coach Cuonzo Martin nor his players seem to be sweating it.
If they play how they should, the Vols believe, they'll be in the Big Dance for the first time since former coach Bruce Pearl's final season in 2011.
"When you set a goal or you set a standard at a university, of course you want to continue to keep that standard and continue going to the NCAA tournament," forward Jeronne Maymon said Monday at the program's media day in Thompson-Boling Arena. "We haven't met that goal the past two years. We're definitely locked in and in tune to what we have to do.
"If we don't make the NCAA tournament, it'll be really disappointing for us as players, coaches and part of Vol Nation. We really just want to make sure we go out here and compete at the highest level and make our university proud."
Martin and his players are convinced the Vols have both the talent and the depth to not only make the NCAA tournament, but to challenge for an SEC title. Maymon's return from the knee injury that wiped out his 2012-13 season is a big reason for that, and All-SEC performers Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes also are back.
In Memphis transfer Antonio Barton, five-star recruit Robert Hubbs and fellow freshman Darius Thompson, who's already impressed the coaching staff, the Vols have some exciting new components to incorporate with their returning nucleus of Maymon, McRae, Stokes and two-year starter Josh Richardson.
"If we play how we're capable of playing," McRae said, "the tournament and all that stuff will happen by itself."
Martin believes this group should be the most talented one he's had at Tennessee. The coach always has had the slogan "Tougher Breed" ready for use since taking the Tennessee job, but this is the first team he's felt comfortable enough to apply it to.
The close calls with the NCAA tournament the past two seasons don't appear to have changed Martin's mindset.
"The goal is to make it every year," he said. "Last year we had the personnel going into the season, and obviously Jeronne Maymon's situation was a little tough, but I think we got better down the stretch. We didn't get it done. That's the bottom line.
"I said with all sincerity there's no pressure. It's just doing your job. I think we've got the personnel to do it, so we just take it one game at a time and do what we're supposed to do."
Asked about the Vols' ceiling, Richardson said, "I don't think we have one, really. I haven't seen us have a ceiling yet, so I feel like it can be a great year for us."
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