KNOXVILLE - The 1-11 NCAA Division II team filling the seats on the visitors' bench at Thompson-Boling Arena made Saturday afternoon an easy one for Tennessee.
With SEC play up next, the Volunteers will have little room to relax and less room for error.
"It's definitely about to get real," forward Jeronne Maymon said after Tennessee cruised to a 98-51 win against Tusculum College to wrap up preconference play.
The Vols (9-4) enter Tuesday night's SEC opener on the road against a good LSU team on a three-game winning streak.
"I like where we are," point guard Antonio Barton said after he scored 14 points and hit four 3-pointers. "We have a little more things to work on, but right now I think we're going [at] a good pace. We're playing together, we're sharing the ball well, we're rebounding and we're defending good."
Though the previous two wins were by 15 and 35 points, Saturday's victory was by far the easiest of the three. Tennessee scored the first 11 points of the game, led by 25 at halftime and stretched the lead to 49 during second-half garbage time. The Vols outscored Tusculum 48-10 in the paint, shot 57 percent and were 11-of-23 on 3-point shots.
Jordan McRae led Tennessee with 19 points, though he barely played after halftime, and his 19 minutes were a team high. Maymon chipped in 16 points with seven rebounds. Jarnell Stokes and Josh Richardson, who did not start after he was late to the game, scored 10 each.
D'Montre Edwards, who'd played 10 minutes all season, scored a career-high 12 points and hit two 3-pointers in 16 minutes, and the 6-foot-6 senior could be in line for a larger role with freshman wing Robert Hubbs III out because of a shoulder injury.
"I don't think he's done for the season, but don't quote me on that one," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said of Hubbs, who was a five-star recruit. "He hasn't done any contact since the injury, so it's one of those deals."
Edwards, who signed with Tennessee out of junior college in 2012, had scored 41 points in 19 career games before Saturday.
"You get frustrated at times," he said, "but the same time, the ultimate goal is you're playing for Tennessee, you want to win games. You've just got to keep working on your game, stay in the gym and make some shots.
"I felt good out there. I wasn't nervous. Just being able to get out there is the thing, so once I got out there, I just felt like, 'Play my game, play for Tennessee.'"
Tennessee continued its efficient ball movement and tallied 30 assists on 35 field goals. During the win streak, the Vols have 68 helpers and are assisting on 72 percents of their made shots.
In the losses to Wichita State and North Carolina State, Tennessee recorded just 16 assists.
"I think in our last three games," Martin said, "we've done a good job of spacing, moving, cutting. But when you're making shots -- and we're capable of making shots -- we're a different team."
Indeed, Tennessee looks like a much different team than the one that got off to a disappointing start to the season. The Vols have a climb to make against an improved SEC, but that's a familiar spot for them. Tennessee began SEC play 1-4 last season and still felt it deserved an NCAA tournament berth when left out of the field on Selection Sunday.
"I was never frustrated as a coach," Martin said of his team's slow start to this season. "I knew what we had to do. I knew the adjustments we had to make. You've got to make the adjustments and move forward."
The Vols appear to have put that sluggish start behind them heading into the key months of the season.
"We all just sat down and talked and decided what we needed to do and what's going to be best for the team," said freshman guard Darius Thompson, who had nine assists Saturday. "We've been practicing a lot better than we have. How we're practicing, we're just getting it into the game and how we play.
"I feel like after we lost [to N.C. State], we just decided we can't do that no more. We hate that feeling, coming into the locker room after a loss. We just didn't want to do that no more, so we just started practicing better habits."
The Vols must continue those habits against the SEC to accomplish what they set out to do this season.
"Our minds are in a good spot," Maymon said. "Coach Martin always keeps us stable. We never waver. We lose one, we don't get it back. We win one, we're going to stay humble. That's how we look at it."
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