For the Vols, a little sightseeing, a little hoops in Italy
PISA, Italy — Armani Moore was scrambling Friday night.
The Tennessee freshman found himself out of position. Playing a group of older, more experience professionals from Lithuania, Moore looked to the bench in bewilderment. His shout echoed through the tiny Italian gym.
"What defense are we in?"
"I don't know," coach Cuonzo Martin replied, arms extended to his sides, "You tell me."
Moore was on his own.
It's been the theme of the Vols' four-game, 10-day summer tour of Italy. As the curator of Tennessee basketball, Martin views the games, sightseeing, education and team bonding as devices serving the trip's overall modus operandi — growth.
Off the court, there are no curfews. The Vols aren't told to behave, they're expected to. The same applies on the floor. Martin and his staff aren't coaching, as much as they're observing, seeing who makes what decisions.
"We didn't start talking about how you handle yourself on a trip when we got to Italy," Martin said Saturday after two hours spent strolling the grounds of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "When I took over the program, it became about how you handle your business. Those are daily conversations. It's not, 'OK, we're on a trip, let's act a certain way.' It's too late if you're doing that."
Be that as it may, Martin is responsible for 15 untethered 18- to-23-year-olds traveling abroad.
None speak Italian. Draped in bright orange, each sticks out like a peacock among pigeons. The drinking age is 18. The nightlife is inviting.
It's a combustible recipe.
It's also one the coaches are comfortable with.
"Come to think of it, a curfew was never even discussed," said Marco Harris, the team's student-athlete welfare coordinator. "It never came up before we left."
Martin hopes that by preaching what responsibility is, instead of how to be responsible, his players subconsciously mature.
Looking across the street at his team as they bartered with gypsies hawking Rolexes and Ray Bans on Saturday, Martin rhetorically asked, "Why do we stress and strain when an 18-, 22-year-old kid makes a mistake?"
"It's because they're in the spotlight and it goes with the territory. They understand that and we always make them aware of that because not only do they represent themselves, but they represent the University of Tennessee."
According to Harris, the Vols' lone two rules in Italy are not to go anywhere alone and for each player to enjoy himself. The latter isn't asking for too much.
UT and its entourage zipped from Rome to Florence to Pisa last week before arriving in San Marino early Saturday evening.
Every resource imaginable is at the Vols' disposable. A Tennessee professor, Robert Bast, accompanied the team on the trip to teach Renaissance history. Professional tour guides, hired specifically for UT's jaunt through Italy, humanize the inadamant. The players' camera phones have snapped continuously, capturing one impossibly beautiful sight after another.
"We're traveling, doing tours every day, trying to sightsee as much as possible and trying to get the Italian experience," UT junior Skylar McBee said. "At the same time, when it's time to play ball, it's time to play ball."
When that time arrived Wednesday and Friday, the Vols responded with a pair of wins. They're not being coached as much as they're being encouraged to use their intuition.
Martin constantly says championship teams are an assemblage of strong players understanding how to make individual plays. If a team or an individual needs instruction on the minutia of the game, neither is any good.
Thus, players looking to the bench for a play call in Italy are stonewalled.
"Most players function in hostile environments and tough situations — the guys that can make plays and make something happen, they're the good ones," Martin said. "We have structure in everything we do offensively and defensively, but what we're looking for on a trip like this is who can make individual plays offensively and defensively."
This isn't to say that Martin sits in silence. The snarl is still there. Missed rebounds are still unacceptable. Blown assignments on defense are subject to an immediate seat on the bench.
The reins are off, but responsibility remains.
On Italy's fertile soil, Martin is watering the Vols.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn