You wouldn't choose to play your first three rounds of golf at Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews. Likewise, you wouldn't choose to play your first three SEC basketball games against No. 13 Florida, No. 15 Mississippi State and No. 2 Kentucky.
That's the daunting task facing first-year Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin, however, starting with the Gators (12-3) today at 11:02 in Thompson-Boling Arena. The Vols visit the Bulldogs (13-2) Thursday night, then host the Wildcats (14-1) one week from today.
Facing three top-15 teams with a combined record of 39-6 in your first three conference games is quite an introduction to SEC hoops for Martin but Tennessee's players are excited about the upcoming gauntlet.
"That's a great schedule to have — to play against the best, especially in your conference," senior wing Cameron Tatum said. "That's what you come to college for. While you're being recruited you're watching all of these teams playing on national television. This is the level of competition you say you want to play. Well, here it is.
"I think everybody's excited and ready for it."
Obviously, the next three games will enable the Vols to find out in a hurry how they stack up against the league's premier teams.
"It's going to be a big stretch for us," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "In the SEC there's never an off night. It's a great conference, and that's something you live for as a basketball player. We don't want any games where we can let off."
Still, Golden said the Vols' approach to their upcoming grind is no different than any other three-game stretch, noting: "We're going in with the same attitude we have every night: Execute offensively, execute defensively and play as hard as we can."
Tennessee brings a 7-7 record into today's game after an up-and-down pre-conference schedule. The Vols played very well in starting 3-2, slumped during a four-game losing streak, rallied with a four-game winning streak, then unraveled in an 18-point loss at Memphis on Wednesday night.
Despite the erratic play, Martin believes he saw progress in one key area over the past two weeks.
"Defensively," he said. "The thing about defense is being consistent with it and taking pride in it more than anything."
The Vols' most disturbing problem to date has been their inconsistent work on the backboards. They gave up 17 offensive rebounds in a loss to Pittsburgh and were outrebounded 36-26 in Wednesday's loss at Memphis.
"Our biggest area of concern — where we have to get better — is boxing out," Martin said. "The defensive part will come because defense is really taking pride in doing it."
Whether or not the pre-conference schedule has adequately prepared Tennessee for the rigors of SEC play remains to be seen. Naturally, the Vols believe it has.
"I think it prepared us a lot," Tatum said. "We had a lot of top teams coming at us, and the so-called mid-major teams played us great. I think we've been tested through the whole non-conference schedule, and now we're ready to see what we're made of."
Golden agrees, noting: "When you play teams like Duke and Memphis, those are the same caliber teams you play in the SEC. A lot has prepared us for Saturday, and I think it will be a big game for us."
NOTES: Florida has beaten Tennessee four times in a row, including three times last season.... Vol mid-term signee Jarnell Stokes celebrates his 18th birthday today.... The Gators rank No. 5 nationally in scoring (85.4 points per game) and No. 1 nationally in 3-point baskets (11.3 per game).... Florida is expected to start 6-9, 247-pound sophomore Patric Young (12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds per game), 6-10, 230-pound Erik Murphy (10.6 points), 6-3, 207-pound freshman Bradley Beal (14.5 points, 5.9 rebounds), 6-2, 189-pound Kenny Boynton (19.5 points) and 5-8, 177-pound Erving Walker (13.7 points, 5.3 assists).... NBADraft.net projects Beal to be the No. 6 pick and Young the No. 20 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.... Today's game will be televised by ESPN2.