An ESPNU satellite truck will pull into a Thompson-Boling Arena driveway early today and open its doors to the second half of the Tennessee men's basketball season.
There are no more gimmies.
Games against Xavier and Memphis — a pair of perennial tournament teams — preface the Vols' SEC opener against Ole Miss in 12 days.
"The lights are coming on," UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday. "Time to be ready."
Starting with Xavier today (TV: ESPNU, 6:05 p.m.) and next Friday's showdown with rival Memphis will bring national television audiences to Thompson-Boling.
They'll also bring the season's final two opportunities for solid non-conference wins on UT's NCAA tournament resume.
That said, the Vols will face a weaker-than-normal Xavier team. The Musketeers (7-4) have dropped three of their last four games. Losses piled up against rival Cincinnati, lowly Vanderbilt and head-scratching Wofford. Each loss came inside the Cincinnati city limits, usually a friendly fortress for Xavier.
Any UT fan still lamenting the absence of star forward Jeronne Maymon (knee) can look to the Muskies for solace.
Coach Chris Mack lost 2011-12 leading scorer Tu Holloway and leading rebounder Kenny Frease to graduation, parted ways with second-leading scorer Mark Lyons (transfer to Arizona) and then unexpectedly lost fourth-leading scorer Dezmine Wells (transfer to Maryland) after he was expelled by the school for a sexual assault charge that was later dismissed.
As if that wasn't enough, Xavier lost incoming freshmen Jalen Reynolds and Myles Davis, half of Mack's 14th-ranked recruiting class, to academic eligibility issues. Then, for good measure, assistant coaches Rasheen Davis (to Manhattan) and Kareem Richardson (to Louisville), jumped ship.
Even with Maymon's absence, the Vols are a picture of stability compared to the Musketeers.
"They're looking to find themselves," Martin said. "With the talent they have, there's no telling where they'd be if those other guys were playing."
Xavier can be dangerous, though. Early season wins over Butler and Drexel stand as proof. The team is led by freshman Samaj Christon (pronounced Sem-ah-jeh Kristen), who
leads four double-digit scorers with 14.2 points per game.
At 6-foot-3, Criston is one of a crew of guards who Martin called, "Big, talented and extremely versatile."
Tennessee is riding a three-game winning streak since back-to-back losses to Georgetown and Virginia.
UT returned to practice on Wednesday after a holiday break following a 66-52 victory against Western Carolina on Dec. 21. Of the practices since returning, Martin said, "When you have that amount of time off you go back to basics — back to the first two or three weeks of practice.
The practices also have allowed freshman Derek Reese to take the next step toward appearing in his first game. The 6-8 guard from Orlando, Fla., who underwent shoulder surgery Aug. 21 to repair a labral tear, was cleared for full participation in practice this week.
According to Martin, Reese looked "very strong" in all contact drills. Asked about the potential of him making a debut appearance tonight, Martin said, "He could be out there, I wouldn't necessarily rule it out. It will depend on what the doctors say."
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at http://twitter.com/BFQuinn