Cuonzo Martin on Vols in Puerto Rico
BAYAMON, Puerto Rico — Trae Golden walked the ball up the floor Wednesday as wings Skylar McBee and Josh Richardson slugged alongside up-court.
A whistle cut the air in half.
"Jog up the floor again and see what happens," boomed Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, standing under the basket at Coliseo Ruben Rodriguez.
"Get back here."
Golden, Richardson and McBee went back to the baseline, turned, and sprinted up floor.
The Vols aren't in Puerto Rico for a vacation.
"Y'all got to prove yourselves," Martin hollered later with an accompanying clap.
The Vols coach has rehashed that message throughout the early stages of the 2012-13 season. Whereas so many coaches publicly preach that outside views don't infiltrate their programs, Martin is unambiguous about UT's preseason expectations.
Time and time again, he has candidly talked to the media about the proverbial target on the Vols' back.
"It's for our guys to know and understand to be prepared and focused," he said after Wednesday's practice in preparation for today's opening-round meeting with UNC Asheville (1-1) at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (TV: ESPNU, 12:30 p.m.).
"You can't tiptoe into the games," Martin continued. "People know who Tennessee is. They know Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon and Trae Golden. They know who those guys are so there's a certain reputation."
So target firmly on their back and Maymon firmly on the bench with injury, the Vols will embark on the first true test of the season today through Sunday.
A consummate underdog for the better part of last year, Tennessee (1-0) is now considered the second or third best team among the Puerto Rico Tip-Off's eight-team field.
No. 6 N.C. State is the favorite.
Oklahoma State, picked third behind Kansas and Baylor in the Big 12 preseason poll, joins UT as the tournament's second-tier contenders.
"That means you have to go into the games with an edge," Martin said. "You can't assume people will just let you walk through games and go through the motions."
Asheville will approach today as an opportunity to slay a nearby bully on a neutral floor. Coach Eddie Biedenbach is 0-8 against UT in his 16 years with the Bulldogs.
They nearly turned the trick last season in a 72-68 loss at Thompson-Boling Arena. Asheville returns just one starter from that team, though, while UT has grown from nobody to somebody.
On Friday, either Oklahoma State (1-0) or Akron (1-1) will be looking to knock off the Vols. A win for the Cowboys would be a big boost to their non-conference resume come NCAA tournament selection time. For the Zips, who won the MAC regular-season title last year but lost to Ohio in the conference title game, any victory against a power conference team resonates.
Back to back wins today and Friday could potentially arrange a date with N.C. State (1-0) on Sunday.
Martin isn't quite ready to go there.
Before boarding the team bus after practice, he was asked about winning three games in four days. He closed his eyes, bit his lip and shook his head.
"I say it with all sincerity when I say it's one game at a time," Martin countered. "You can't take anything for granted, especially in atmospheres like this. There are unfamiliar rims, facilities and resources. Anything can happen here. It's not a road game. It's a neutral site."
And it's a proving ground.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men's basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn