The individual workouts this spring were so taxing, in fact, that they left one veteran Vol shifting his weight from one foot to another as he gave a recent post-practice interview.
"My legs are really hurting," rising senior Skylar McBee explained apologetically. "I'm doing that so I don't collapse."
After putting the Vols through strenuous workouts last preseason, head coach Cuonzo Martin made the practices just as taxing this postseason.
"They're tough," McBee said. "After getting a couple of weeks off, then getting right back into it, they don't cut no slack. He's definitely putting us through it but, in the end, that's going to make us better and put us over the top for next year. And that's what we want."
Because Tennessee was depth-shy in 2011-12, Martin had to be careful not to push the Vols so hard during the season that they were susceptible to injury. Now that the season is over, the threat of injury is no longer a big concern. That's why the April workouts were the most taxing yet.
McBee characterized the individual practices as "more intense," adding: "During the season you've got to worry about saving your legs. It's a long season, so you really worry about fatigue. Now we don't worry about fatigue. It's about pushing yourself to the limit, seeing how much you can endure and keep pushing through."
Of course, some players grow weary of "pushing through" and leave the program. Not McBee. The Rutledge native grew up wanting to be a Vol, so he isn't going to let a little thing like cramping legs prevent him from living his dream.
"It is tough but that's what you sign up for when you play college basketball," he said. "That's what it's about. It's definitely a privilege to be here, so you look at all of the stuff you have to go through in a positive light because that's what we have to do to ensure that we win games."
McBee has undergone quite a transformation since enrolling at Tennessee three years ago — facially, as well as physically. After resembling a baby-faced 12-year-old during his first two years at Tennessee, he showed up for his junior year sporting a shaggy mustache. Now he has opted for a full goatee in an apparent effort to project an even more mature appearance.
"It's just a little modification, a little different look for the offseason," he said. "My mom seems to like it a little bit better. I've gotten some good feedback about it. Everybody likes the goatee a little more than the mustache, I think."
With a new coaching staff and a bunch of new players, Tennessee struggled to a 10-12 start in 2011-12. The team jelled at this point, however, and went 9-3 the rest of the way to finish 19-15 overall and tied for second in SEC play at 10-6.
Now that the coaches know what to expect from the players — and vice versa — the Vols should be a lot better in Year 2 of the Cuonzo Martin era than they were in Year 1.
"I think we're definitely more confident in everybody's role, what we need to work on and how we're going to fit into his system," McBee said. "I definitely think everybody's more comfortable with that. As far as chemistry goes, we've been together for a year and been with this staff for a year, so I think you're going to see a lot of improvement over the summer and into next season."
The Vols were wildly inconsistent in 2011-12, and no Vol better illustrated the trend than McBee. After scoring 15 points in Game 2 versus Louisiana Monroe, he scored just 15 points in the next five games combined. He strung together consecutive scoring performances of 12, 12 and 16 points in Games 11, 12 and 13, then scored just 20 points in the next seven games combined. Joining the starting lineup in Game 23 versus Georgia, he posted four double-figure outings in a row only to follow with scoreless outings in Games 27 and 28. Two games after matching his career-high with five 3-pointers in an SEC Tournament loss to Ole Miss, he went 0 for 7 from the field (0 for 5 from 3) in a season-ending loss to Middle Tennessee in Round 2 of the NIT.
"I've got to keep working on becoming a better shooter and also adding some dimensions to my game — being able to get into the lane and create for some other guys," McBee said. "Also, I'm trying to put in a one-dribble pull-up where I can give a pump fake, take one dribble and make a jump shot. And definitely I want to get to the free-throw line more next year."