KNOXVILLE - One game into the Southeastern Conference portion of Tennessee's basketball schedule and the Vols' most valuable player is already crystal clear.
It's Jeronne Maymon, who isn't going to play a minute all winter, his left knee too slow to recover from surgery to give it a try this season.
So even though Maymon didn't score a single point or grab a solitary rebound in Wednesday night's 92-74 loss to Ole Miss, his absence was again sorely felt.
And without him the Vols are increasingly looking like a team incapable of making so much as a deep NIT run, much less capturing an NCAA bid.
Not that it was supposed to be this way. With the expected Bruise Brothers duo of Maymon and sophomore Jarnell Stokes -- a combined 13-plus feet and 530 pounds of granite -- Tennessee was going to have the most imposing 1-2 interior punch in the league.
Florida's Billy Donovan called them the league favorites in the preseason. Kentucky's John Calipari echoed that belief. In a 14-team SEC in which no fewer than three schools -- Florida, Kentucky and Missouri -- were viewed as potential Final Four squads, UT was ranked fourth in the league's preseason poll.
But that assumed Maymon would recover in time to play meaningful minutes throughout the season. Instead, he's never seen the floor and without him the Vols are seeing nothing but trouble.
Much as Memphis sprinted to an unbeatable lead last Friday inside Thompson-Boling before coasting to an 85-80 win, the Rebels slowly, steadily, unflappably muscled in front 38-30 at intermission, Tennessee never to pull closer than five in the final half.
Sadly, this is what UT coach Cuonzo Martin is facing throughout his team's final 17 SEC contests.
Stokes without Maymon often seems lost, or smothered, unable to get clean looks inside.
And with no consistent inside scoring, the Vols have too often reverted to Bruce Pearl ball, indiscriminately launching 3-pointers -- 7-of-26 against the Rebs -- in hopes of erasing the interior scoring woes. Of greater concern, they were outrebounded 37-42
All of this has made a stunning scorer out of junior wing Jordan McRae -- who followed his 26-point effort against Memphis with 26 more against Ole Miss.
It has opened the door for Yemi Makanjuola to hone the raw skills brewing inside his 6-9, 250-pound frame. There are glimpses nightly of his vast potential, as with his putback jump hook in Wednesday's second half.
But there is no one as consistent as Maymon, who averaged nearly 13 points and more than eight rebounds last season for a Big Orange bunch that came within one or two victories of an improbable NCAA tourney bid last March.
Now Maymon's on the shelf for good, the Vols stand 8-5 overall and 0-1 in the SEC after one home game and the 11th place finish predicted for UT a year ago within the league seems much more likely this season.
"I told Jeronne after the game that if we could just find one guy to get the rebounds he always got," said McRae. "Because he seemed to get every rebound last year."
Asked who that might be, McRae sat silent for a moment, then said, "Well, there isn't anybody like Jeronne."
MVPs are like that. Tough to find. Tougher to replace.