LAHAINA, Hawaii — Tennessee will have its opportunity to prove it still belongs at college basketball’s head table this week.
Seated across from the Vols in their opening game at the prestigious EA Sports Maui Invitational is Duke royalty, atop its throne, the winningest coach in men’s Division I basketball history, Mike Krzyzewski.
“It’s Duke, it’s Coach K, it’s Hawaii,” UT point guard Trae Golden said. “We’re playing to win and represent the University of Tennessee.”
The Vols (2-0) tip off against the No. 6 Blue Devils (4-0) at 5:30 p.m. Monday (TV: ESPN2).
“We believe in ourselves,” UT senior Renaldo Woolridge said. “That’s all that matters.”
Good thing, because few others give the Vols much of a chance to beat teams like Duke or reach the NCAA tournament for a seventh consecutive time.
UT was picked to finish 11th in the SEC, and ESPN dropped the Vols from its high-profile “Super Tuesday” programming this season. Attendance was down at the first two home games, and only Michigan sold fewer of its allotted tickets in the eight-team Maui Invitational.
At that, the Vols’ invitation came more than a year ago, when it appeared former coach Bruce Pearl would still be ringleader and there was a chance SEC standouts Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson would return for another season.
But new coach Cuonzo Martin takes it all in stride.
“I don’t think about any of that stuff, don’t have the time to,” Martin said. “I was given an opportunity here, we’re going to work hard to do things as best as we can.
“It’s great for our guys to be playing on this stage. We’re privileged to be here (Hawaii), but we know why we’re here.”
Martin hasn’t mentioned the loss of Harris or Hopson, nor has he droned on about the Vols being one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. Hard lumps are to be expected, yet Martin almost seems to embrace the notion.
“You have to go through the fire to find out where you are as a team,” said Martin, whose team has beaten UNC Greensboro and Louisiana Monroe this season. “You have to hit that tough spot, that rough patch, where you’ve lost a couple of games. Then you see how do guys respond, who’s pointing fingers, who’s not defending.
“You see who’s still leading the team saying, ‘let’s stick together.’ ”
Still, Martin believes the Vols can beat Duke and either Michigan or Memphis on Tuesday.
The players have that same air, taking gloomy prognostications as a challenge.
“We talk about it every day, that people don’t think we’re going to do anything,” junior forward Jeronne Maymon said. “We’ll see what we’re made of here. It’s a test to see where our heart is, where our head is. We’re hard workers, we’re dedicated, we’re buying into Coach Martin, and we believe.”
Golden watched Krzyzewski get his record-breaking 903rd win against Michigan State on Tuesday night.
“I heard Coach K say something like, his players might not always love him, but they play hard for him,” Golden said. “Well, we love Coach Martin, and we all play hard for him, too.
“It’s the way he relates to us. We know we can talk to him about anything, and he cares about us.”
As for playing Duke ...
“Duke is just another game,” Golden said. “Why would we be in awe of them? What’s really the difference between Duke and Kentucky? We play Kentucky every year.”
Golden’s businesslike disposition is a sign Martin’s message has been accepted.
“You have to approach (Duke) as business as usual,” Martin said. “We tell our guys, whether it’s an exhibition game or the No. 1 team, the only thing that changes is the name on the front of that jersey.
“I keep things to a minimum; we do certain things, we win the game,” Martin said. “You can’t think the officials will call it this way, or they are 12-0 in Maui (which Duke is), or their coach has won this many games. You’re just giving excuses why you can’t win.
“Your guys say, ‘he’s the all-time winner.’ That doesn’t matter; what matters is making more shots than they do.”
Martin’s bulldog approach made him a favorite of his former coach at Purdue, Gene Keady, who never fails to heap praise on Martin every time Knoxville’s 865 area code shows up on his caller ID.
“Cuonzo was the best leader I had in my 50 years of coaching, and he’ll figure out a way to get it right,” said Keady, who won six Big Ten titles at Purdue from 1980 to 2005. “Every day is a new day for him working with a new team. Zo knows if he teaches the right fundamentals and right intensity, you can beat anyone on a given night.”
Keady laughed when he heard the Vols were opening the Maui Invitational against Duke.
“Tell Cuonzo to keep Mike (Krzyzewski) away from the referees,” Keady said, asked if he had any advice. “Mike is a friend of mine, so I can say that, but Cuonzo is like my son, so he’s a lot closer to me.
“Listen, Tennessee’s got a good name, good facilities and plenty of resources. Zo will be fine, believe me.”
Mike Griffith covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/MikeGriffith32