No one expected much of head basketball coach Cuonzo Martin in Year 1 at Tennessee, and understandably so:
His program was without five of the top six scorers from the year before. His program was psychologically fragile following the firing of popular head man Bruce Pearl. His program would be adjusting to new offensive and defensive schemes. Moreover, his program would be competing in the rugged SEC East against three preseason top-25 teams — Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida.
Having overcome these hurdles to post a 19-15 record in 2011-12, Martin now faces loftier expectations for 2012-13. This time six of the top seven scorers are back. The Pearl wounds have healed, and the new schemes have been in place for a full year.
In addition to Tennessee being better, the competition may be a tad worse. Kentucky has lost all five starters from a team that went 38-2 and won the national championship. Vanderbilt lost all five starters from a team that went 25-11 and won the SEC Tournament title. Florida lost two key starters from a team that went 26-11 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight.
Simply put, the SEC East doesn't look nearly as imposing now that departures have stripped Kentucky's and Vandy's rosters. Asked if that is encouraging, Martin smiled.
"That wasn't even a concern of mine," the Vol head man said. "For me as a coach and as a former player, I like to go against the best on a consistent basis. That's what this is all about — competing against the best. I want our league, with 14 teams now, to have seven or eight teams in the NCAA Tournament.
"You'd like to beat everybody that you play against when you look outside (the league). You want to represent the SEC. You want all of your teams to be good and you want a lot of teams to be in The (NCAA) Tournament. I think that's the gauge of a great league."
Whether or not the SEC is a great league in 2012-13, Tennessee projects to be one of the conference's better teams based on the return of four starters from a 2011-12 squad that went 10-6 in league play.
Martin says returning starters doesn't always equate to success, however.
"I like to think it will be good, just from the standpoint that they know how to play with each other," he said. "But as you go into the summer months, you've got to avoid the distractions, the pitfalls, to stay as a unit. That's the most important thing. I've seen teams that come back and have an opportunity to be successful but all of a sudden somebody gets off track and you fall apart as a team."
Pegged 11th among the 12 SEC teams in preseason polls last fall, Tennessee projects to be picked third or fourth this fall. Now that he is no longer a rookie coach, Martin concedes that expectations should rise.
"Even if we had a young team, if I'd been in the program for X number of years they would understand the expectation level," he said. "That's the most important thing — how we play and how we compete. If we do the things we're supposed to do, then we've got a chance to beat anybody."
Rising senior guard Skylar McBee thinks so, too. With all of the top seven scorers back except for Cameron Tatum, McBee believes the 2012-13 outlook is bright.
"It'll be a nice thing that we get back a lot of our scoring and a lot of our players," he said. "Our chemistry will be a whole lot better next year ... the second year playing with everybody."
In addition to the returnees, Tennessee will be blending in three newcomers — junior college transfer D'montre Edwards, plus high school signees Derek Reese and Armani Moore.
"We've got to work these new guys into the system," McBee said. "Everybody's got to accept their role and work hard in the offseason. I definitely think you'll see some improvement."
Although fans will expect considerably more of the 2012-13 Vols than they expected of the 2011-12 Vols, McBee says that represents no added pressure.
"Whether we play the underdog role or we're on top, it really doesn't matter," he said. "We set our own expectations. We're just trying to achieve those."