"The majority of the team was on the scout squad last year and had smaller roles," rising senior Renaldo Woolridge noted recently. "Now we all have to step up in bigger roles."
That might be the understatement of the year. Returning starter Cameron Tatum (25.2 minutes per game) is one of only three Vols who averaged double-digit minutes last season. The other two barely qualify - sophomore point guard Trae Golden (13.3) and junior combo guard Skylar McBee (12.6). Undaunted, the Vols are hoping to offset their lack of experience with an abundance of energy.
"This is a real, real hungry group," said Woolridge, who played just 72 minutes last season. "We're going to be working a lot harder. We'll be exciting to watch, too, because we're going to be real athletic."
The returning Vols may be athletic but they aren't proven. Five of the top six scorers from 2010-11 are gone, and so is head coach Bruce Pearl. As a result, many observers project a difficult rookie season for first-year head man Cuonzo Martin. Eager to prove the doubters wrong, Tennessee's players say the pervasive pessimism is merely giving them added incentive.
"It's just motivation," junior forward Jeronne Maymon said. "It encourages us to work harder, knowing people are already doubting us. Once we come out and show 'em what we've got, I think that's going to fill a couple of question marks in people's heads."
Woolridge agrees, noting: "We love it. That's the story of the players we have now. Our whole careers we've not had much expected of us, so we're going to go out and try to prove we have what it takes."
McBee understands the widespread negativity but only up to a point.
"I think that comes with it. We did lose a lot of people, including Coach Pearl," McBee said. "But we're excited about Coach Martin and what he brings to the table. We've got some good players coming back, and I think we'll be competitive."
Like his teammates, McBee believes the gloom-and-doom talk regarding the 2011-12 season is going to motivate the Vols.
"I think it has to," he said. "When you read that stuff and hear the things people say about you, it makes you want to work harder, and I think that's what we're going to do."
While many fans see a tough road for the 2011-12 Vols, the players believe their athleticism and determination will pave the way for success.
"As a team, we're all confident," junior center Kenny Hall said. "We're not going out there to lolly-gag. We going to compete and play hard. We expect ourselves to compete, play hard and win. That's all our focus is.
"We've all got something we feel we need to prove, and we're going to go out there and take it a game at a time. It's a brand new team, a brand new coach. Everything is brand new, so it's not like we're expecting to go out there and win every game, but we're going out there and trying to win every game."
Golden isn't expecting the Vols to win every game, either, but he anticipates more wins than most fans seem to be expecting.
"That (pessimism) don't do nothing but motivate us," he said. "We know what we are. I understand that they didn't see us play and didn't see us in the best light last year but I think we're going to surprise a lot of people.
"I'm not the type of guy to make brash statements but I think we might shock the world. Only time will tell but I think we're going to work hard enough to where we deserve victory."