If Tennessee's basketball team had managed even a half-decent start in 2011-12, it would've made the NCAA Tournament last March. But it didn't.
The Big Orange stumbled so mightily out of the gate — standing 10-12 at the end of January — that an 8-1 stretch run to close the regular season still didn't warrant an invitation to The Dance.
The Vols, 1-0 heading into today's game against UNC Asheville in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off, are determined that a slow start isn't going to cost them an NCAA bid this season.
"I don't think we're going to have any early lapses at the beginning of the year," junior point guard Trae Golden said. "I think going (on an exhibition tour) to Italy and everything helped us. I think this year it's a more mature group of guys."
The Vols spent the first half of the 2011-12 season adjusting to a new head coach (Cuonzo Martin) and a new offense (motion). That obviously contributed to their slow start. Now that they are comfortable with the head man and his system, they should start faster in 2012-13.
"Yeah, definitely," Golden said. "I think we understand more now with Coach Martin as a team. I think that's what you'll see."
Senior guard Skylar McBee also believes the Vols will benefit this season from being more familiar with their coach and his scheme.
"I think everybody's more comfortable in the system this year," he said. "Also, everybody's a little more consistent. I think you're definitely going to see more consistency and see everybody be more comfortable. That's going to be a big advantage for us this season."
Senior center Kenny Hall recalls some difficulties adjusting to a new boss and a new system last season.
"We were a brand new team last year with a new coaching staff and all of that," he said. "Now we've had the time to buy in to the system and get better."
So, what's the key to avoiding another slow start?
"Just play together as a team," Hall said. "I think we all bought in to the system and got better over the course of the year. Now it's a matter of going out and doing it from the start."
Sophomore wing Josh Richardson said there was a learning curve in 2011-12 that the Vols won't be facing in 2012-13.
"I don't really think we did anything wrong last year," he said. "I think we played as hard as we could. With a new coach, a new system and everything, I don't think everybody was acquainted with it. Now that we're acquainted with it and know what we're doing, I don't think that (slow start) is going to happen this year. We won't have to work on our chemistry with the coach like we did last year."
Asked what happened during that 8-1 streak to end the 2011-12 regular season, Richardson smiled.
"I think we started figuring out what Coach Martin wants and what our roles were," he said. "Jarnell (Stokes) coming in (at mid-term) was a big help. Basically, we just started getting our chemistry right and we got a little confident."
Redshirt freshman forward Quinton Chievous believes the team came together late last season and grew even closer during the summer exhibition tour.
"We had to jell, get to know one another and bond to the coach's system last year," he said, "and I feel like we didn't do that right away. Going to Italy helped us to mesh a lot better. This season we're ready to go."
The Vols looked "ready to go" for 28 minutes in last Friday's 2012-13 opener versus Kennesaw State, building a 27-point lead. They lost focus at this point, however, and won by a mere 76-67 score. Still, this year's team exhibits more potential than last year's.
"It's Year 2, so both sides — the coaching staff and the players — understand each other better," Martin said. "They understand the system. We know what we have to do in order to be successful. We know we have to cater our offense to our key guys where we want to get the ball inside. You have to gauge what you want to do as a program, and the guys are familiar with what we want to do."
When asked for his explanation of the Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect of the 2011-12 season, Martin shrugged.
"You have ups and downs," he said, "but I think that was a different team with the addition of Jarnell Stokes. I think that before Jarnell you had a team that was unproven and I am not sure if they played well together because they were playing for themselves. I don't say that in a bad way."
Basically, the 2011-12 Vols spent a big portion of the season playing as individuals before discovering the wonders of teamwork in February.
"I think they saw the lights on them and thought 'I have a chance to shine' but the result is that you lose the game," Martin said. "You don't understand how hard you have to play, what you have to do and what you have to sacrifice to be successful."
Tennessee's selfish phase produced a 10-12 start that included a humiliating home-floor loss to an Austin Peay team that brought a 1-9 record into the game. The subsequent unselfish phase produced a 9-3 record that included a road win at No. 8 Florida.
"They grew as a team as the season went on," Martin said. "But you also had the elite player in Jarnell Stokes. In order to compete at this level you have to have two or three guys like that on the roster to win big games. That addition really helped our team."
The strong finish in 2011-12 has Tennessee's players believing in themselves. Even more importantly, they know their head coach believes in them.
"People talk all the time about how kids have changed," Martin said, "but I think they want to know if you believe in them, if you care for them more than anything. Players are players. In Cam Tatum's case it was a matter of 'Coach, do you believe in me?' That's understood. That's not something I have to talk about. My actions every day speak for themselves. I genuinely care for our guys and I want them to be successful."
Maybe all of these factors can keep Tennessee from getting off to another slow start in 2012-13. Time will tell.
GAME NOTES: Today's tipoff is set for 12:30 Eastern Standard Time.... UNC Asheville (1-1) returns just one starter from a 2011-12 team that went 24-10 overall (16-2 in conference play) and won the Big South title.... UNCA's top players are 6-foot-4 wing Jeremy Atkinson (25.0 points per game) and 6-foot-10 D.J. Cunningham (12.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.5 blocks per game).... The Vols lead the all-time series 8-0.... With Bob Kesling in Nashville to do play-by-play of the Vol-Vanderbilt football game, Randy Smith and Dane Bradshaw will handle the radio broadcast of the UT-UNCA game.... Today's game will be televised by ESPNU.