High hopes for hoops

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Several Tennessee basketball players are lighter this season ... perhaps because they've lost the chips on their shoulders.

This time last year the Vols were admittedly insulted about being pegged 11th out of 12 teams in most SEC preseason polls. They won't have that incentive this year, since several sources project them as a top-25 team.

The obvious question: After proving they could surpass expectations as underdogs, can the Vols meet expectations as favorites? They believe they can. The newfound respect accorded them, they say, has not gone to their heads.

"It's different but I don't think we pay attention to the rankings that much," senior guard Skylar McBee said. "It's early. We've not played any games yet. We're just worried about playing the best basketball we can play. As long as we do that, everything else will take care of itself."

Junior wing Jordan McRae agreed that being picked top-25 in the country one year after being picked 11th in the league is not that big a deal.

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"It's supposed to feel different," he said, "but the way we're treating it is that it's the same deal as last year: We're trying to keep proving ourselves and exceeding expectations."

Interestingly enough, McRae thinks the Vols have just as big a chip on their shoulders heading into the 2012-13 season as they had heading into 2011-12.

"I feel like, if we're not picked No. 1 in the SEC, there's always going to be a chip on our shoulders," he said. "Even then, we're going to play like we're picked 11th. I think everyone realizes what we've got to do. There's a lot of work to be done."

Asked if a spot in the top 25 means anything at all to the Vols, McRae shook his head.

"No," he said. "One game and we can be out of it."

Several players expressed mild satisfaction with the preseason ranking but even they said polls will never be high on their priority list.

"It's a pretty good feeling, knowing we're not the only ones who believe in us this year," senior center Kenny Hall said. "I think it's still something where we try not to read too much into it. We're just trying to stay focused and not worry about rankings or anything like that. I think we proved we were better than that (11th in the SEC) at the end of the year."

Junior point guard Trae Golden conceded that being nationally ranked "feels much different" but added that "we've still got to work hard, make sure we live up to those expectations."

Asked if the Vols have the right mental makeup to handle success, Golden replied: "I think so. Coach (Cuonzo) Martin handles it, and we take after him. He's a humble guy. He says to work first, and that's what we try to do. We're just trying to win ball games and let everything else take care of itself."

True to form, Martin views the lofty expectations of 2012-13 the same way he viewed the low expectations of 2011-12.

"My approach never changes," he said. "It's about making these guys understand that you can be successful if you work hard and stay humble. You have to work as hard as you can work and you have to do it with a level of humility."

Still, the fact Tennessee has risen from obscurity to a top-25 ranking in one year shows Martin and his troops have earned some respect during the past 12 months.

"It kind of gives us confidence going in," sophomore wing Josh Richardson said, "but we really approach it the same way as last year ... as if we're the underdog every game and play as hard as we possibly can."

Richardson's eyes narrowed when he was reminded that the Vols were pegged 11th among SEC teams just one year ago.

"Yeah, it made us mad," he said. "But we've still got to play with a chip on our shoulders this year."

See what some of the Vols said recently about the 2012-13 season:

Trae Golden

Jordan McRae

Jarnell Stokes

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