It's not "just" an exhibition opener for the Tennessee men's basketball team, according to its players.
"This game means a lot more to us than a lot of people think,'' sophomore Jordan McRae said. "We're being doubted, even by some of our fans, and we want to show what we can do.''
New coach Cuonzo Martin will be making his debut when Tennessee plays host to Division II Carson-Newman on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Martin said he isn't feeling any nerves, but like McRae, he's anxious for the team to show its skills.
"The biggest question mark I have is what we'll do in an actual game,'' Martin said. "I'm as excited as our fans are to see us play.''
Martin had originally planned to wait until game day to announce his starting lineup, but following Wednesday's practice, he said he saw what he needed to see.
Junior Kenny Hall will start at the post, junior Jeronne Maymon will be at power forward, senior Cam Tatum on the wing, sophomore Jordan McRae at shooting guard and sophomore Trae Golden will get the nod at point guard.
"I wouldn't necessarily say it's the five who have played the best ... but they may be the five that are the most ready to start,'' Martin said. "I don't like to rotate a lot of starting lineups; I want to have a starting five. I think guys play better when they know how and when they'll play.
"But it's also not a case where a guy becomes a starter and he can relax.''
That wouldn't seem to be an issue anytime soon, based on the enthusiasm the players showed after Wednesday's practice.
"We want to play and give maximum effort; that's going to be our calling card,'' said Tatum, whose 43 career starts more than doubles the 21 starts the rest of the team has combined. "There's no looking back to last year, because this is a whole new team.''
Senior Renaldo Woolridge, who in the offseason vowed to earn a starting spot before all is said and done, said there's a healthy competition between the players.
"It's still early in the season, but I think the competition will bring out the best in everybody,'' Woolridge said. "More than anything, I think what the fans will see (tonight) is competitiveness and a heightened sense of urgency.''
Golden, who Martin indicated has had as strong of a preseason camp as anyone, said he has a good feeling about how the Vols match up with the Eagles.
"There's a curiosity of how we'll play, but there's also confidence,'' Golden said. "I don't think Carson-Newman plays the tough defense we play on each other every day, so I think we'll be able to execute.''
The Eagles don't list any starters taller than 6-foot-5, so Hall (6-9) would figure to get off to a good start in the paint.
"I've been working on my post moves; I can shoot a hook right or left,'' Hall said. "I want to be that post presence for us this year.
"But really, this game is a chance for us to put everything together that we've all been working for. We've all come a long way and put a lot of extra time in the gym.''
The Vols play their second exhibition game at 7 p.m. on Monday against Lincoln Memorial before opening the regular season at 7 p.m. on Nov. 11 against UNC Greensboro.
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32.
Pos., Player Ht. Yr. Ppg.
F Collin Crane 6-5 Jr. 4.5
F Kevin Hare 6-5 Sr. 9.2
F Antoine Davis 6-5 So. —
G Ishmael Sanders 6-1 So. 13.4
G Tyler Smith 6-0 So. 1.4
Pos., Player Ht. Yr. Ppg.
F Kenny Hall 6-9 Jr. 2.0
F Jeronne Maymon 6-7 Jr. 3.2
G Cameron Tatum 6-7 Sr. 8.8
G Jordan McRae 6-5 So. 1.8
G Trae Golden 6-1 So. 3.0
Game Time: 7 p.m. Radio: Vol Radio Network. Series: UT leads 11-4
Former UT assistant Chuck Benson returns for his second season as the Eagles' coach, and says he's looking at the game "purely as an evaluation'' after last season's 11-16 mark. Sophomore guard Ishmael Sanders is a proven scorer, putting 51 points on Mars Hill last season. Sophomore Antoine Davis brings a physical presence into the paint. Benson, on staff at UT with former coaches Wade Houston, Kevin O'Neill and Buzz Peterson, is well-versed in a variety of styles. He'll likely fit his scheme with personnel, which includes eight newcomers.
The Vols get their first live action running coach Cuonzo Martin's motion offense. The offense is predicated on screen action and allows players more freedom in their shot selection, but there still will be an unspoken shot hierarchy. It bears watching who UT looks to for its scoring. One of Martin's pet-peeves is ball security, as his Missouri State teams posted an impressive assist/turnover ratio. Martin will place an emphasis on high-energy, man-to-man defense and floor-burn efforts for loose balls.