KNOXVILLE - The moment that much of the Big Orange Nation had waited more than a year to see - or at least that loyal portion that gives the slightest thought to college basketball in November - arrived with 18:50 to play in Saturday's second half.
Shockingly tied at 47 with Division II Florida Southern in their opening exhibition game, the Tennessee Vols' Jeronne Maymon split a double team well enough to shovel a pass to fellow bruise brother Jarnell Stokes, who roughly flushed Maymon's assist through the goal.
UT was never threatened again, eventually rolling to a 105-80 victory over the Moccasins before a generously estimated crowd of 13,994 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
"Jeronne understands the game," said Stokes, who finished with game highs in points (27) and rebounds (10). "That was something that we were missing last year."
Because the 6-foot-8, 260-pound Maymon missed all of last season with a knee injury, the Vols missed the NCAA tournament for the second time in Cuonzo Martin's two years as coach, despite Stokes averaging a double-double in Southeastern Conference games.
With Maymon back, Florida Southern coach Linc Darner doesn't expect the Vols to again be missing come March.
"They'll be a tough out," said Darner, who was a teammate of Martin's at Purdue when the Boilermakers KO'd Kansas in a Sweet 16 game inside the Boling Alley in 1994.
"With their depth and the scoring they've got on the perimeter with [Jordan] McRae (21 points, nine rebounds) and [freshman Robert] Hubbs (17 points) to go with Stokes and Maymon, they could be really good."
How good? Roughly 16 hours before the Mocs tipped it off against the Vols, they were wrapping up a 110-88 loss to No. 10 Florida before boarding a sleeper bus and arriving at UT around 7:15 Saturday morning.
"Tennessee is a lot deeper," said Darner, who was also quick to point out that the Gators are temporarily without at least four scholarship players due to injuries and suspensions. "Tennessee is longer and more athletic. Florida has one big in [Patric] Young. Tennessee has two. And you're not about to push them around. We fouled them a few times, and I don't think it bothered them. They went in and laid it in, and I thought we hit them pretty hard."
If not being ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 is bothering the Vols, who do stand at No. 26 in total votes, they aren't showing it with the regular-season opener at Xavier now nine days away.
"We just want to be there at the end," said Maymon. "We want to be in the [NCAA] tournament."
Maymon would appear to make that probability all but certain if the rest of his teammates can avoid the injury bug that cost him all of last season. Despite admitting to a serious case of "butterflies," the senior totaled eight points, seven rebounds and four assists in just 17 minutes of play.
Nor has Stokes' determination to lose 15 pounds from his former 272-pound frame hurt the Vols' potential, though Martin might wince about how the first eight of those pounds disappeared.
"It wasn't what most people would do," said the Memphis native. "I skipped meals. Went through some workouts starving. I got dizzy, but I lost eight pounds in one week. Then I started eating smarter to lose the rest of it."
Yet while Maymon certainly did a fine job of feeding Stokes, the other half of the Double J Show was starved for assists on his stat line, finishing with none.
"Hopefully, he'll reciprocate at some point," Maymon said with a grin. "But right now, I'm just happy to be playing again and seeing us win. I just told Jarnell today, 'If I touch it, you look for it.' It worked pretty well, I think."
It all worked well against the overmatched Moccasins, whose starters gave away approximately eight inches, more than 100 pounds and quite possibly 40 or more hours of good sleep to the Vols. It should work similarly well when Indiana Southern arrives on Thursday for UT's final exhibition.
As for the regular season and beyond, Stokes sounded like a man who expected more of the same.
"When we play our hardest, we can do a lot of damage," he said of the Vols' formidable front line. "I'm not saying we're the best, but I think we'd give anybody a pretty good fight."
Or as Martin said of Maymon's return, perhaps the most important words heard in more than a year in Big Orange Country regarding men's basketball: "[Maymon] gives us all of our parts that we need."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwied firstname.lastname@example.org.