Cuonzo Martin on Tennessee's win
Tennessee basketball got a fresh start Thursday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. An exhibition losing streak has been nipped in the bud.
OK, under the circumstances, perhaps that surprising loss to the University of Indianapolis last November wasn't foremost on everyone's mind as they settled into their seats.
Tobias Harris was settled into a courtside seat next to Melvin Goins. Nearby, the great Dale Ellis was settled into a seat. Like everyone else, they were curious what direction UT basketball was about to take now that the wildly popular Bruce Pearl Show has been shut down.
Over on the Carson-Newman College bench, even coach Chuck Benson, a former UT aide, and his assistant Shane Williams, a former Vol point guard, were probably a little curious.
And you know what, so was Cuonzo Martin.
A modest crowd that braved a rainy school night in the thick of football season greeted Tennessee's new head coach warmly upon his first introduction.
Martin, who played the college game at the highest level and has coached his own team for three years at Missouri State, fessed up to a case of butterflies.
There is always the nagging worry that you haven't done enough in preparation.
"For me as a coach,'' he said, "that'll never change.''
Things eventually turned out fine, a 73-52 exhibition victory over Carson-Newman.
The start, however, vindicated Martin's butterflies. Facing a zone defense, the Vols missed their first six field-goal tries and their first four free throws.
The Eagles went up 6-0 and their lead was still six points as the first half neared the midway point.
Tennessee nudged its way to a 39-30 halftime lead and the issue was never in serious doubt again.
I dragged the Indianapolis skeleton out of the closet to make a point. In college basketball, don't make too much of what you see in November or even December.
Last year's Tennessee team wasn't as bad as it looked getting snookered by a Division II team. Nor was it as good as it looked a month later shredding powerful Pittsburgh on the road.
So don't draw too many conclusions from the first night of the Martin Era.
This is a team on which pretty much every player with the possible exception of senior guard Cam Tatum is adapting to a new role.
"Things are gonna get better,'' said sophomore point guard Trae Golden. "We're a work in progress.
"Everybody still has find out their niche and find what they're good at.''
Tatum was joined in the starting lineup by four new faces: Golden and a trio — Kenny Hall, Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon — that was largely bench-bound last year under Pearl.
On the first night of the rest of their lives, Golden, Maymon and McRae were Tennessee's most productive players.
Maymon hustled up a double-double with 10 points and 15 rebounds. He also took two charges.
"I would imagine he's one of the toughest guys in this league,'' ventured Martin.
McRae was the leading scorer with 17 points, 12 of them strung together in the first half to give the Vols their first lead.
Golden scored an efficient 14 points and handled playmaking duties reasonably well with five assists and only one turnover.
"I hope the fans realize this is our first game,'' McRae said. "We only had one scrimmage against ourselves.
"I think we put on a really good showing for this to be our first step.''
The second step is Monday night, another exhibition against Lincoln Memorial.
One week from tonight, the Vols face the real deal, the season-opener against UNC-Greensboro.
Before they know it, they'll be off to Maui where heavyweights Duke, Memphis, and Michigan await.
"We tried to work together tonight with what we know,'' said Maymon. "It's gonna get better with time.
"We've obviously got a long way to go.''
This is looking like a case of long-term curiosity.