On Saturday, March 3, 2012, Cuonzo Martin, fresh off a 12-round knockout of rival Vanderbilt, repeated the question.
“Is this an NCAA tournament team?” the Tennessee men’s basketball coach said in a you-know-the-answer kind of way, “There’s no doubt in my mind.”
There was doubt, however, in the minds of the NCAA tournament selection committee.
A one-and-done trip to the SEC tournament and early season missteps sent UT to the NIT.
Standing at midcourt inside Pratt Pavilion on Thursday for UT’s media day, Martin was reminded of that post-Vandy moment. All around him, his players were being asked about the expectations of the 2012-13 season — a trip to the NCAA tournament being No. 1.
Glancing around, Martin said those aspirations can be met. He then delivered a caveat that will serve as the upcoming season’s foundation.
“Only if they’re still ready to hunt,” he said resolutely. “I think when you hunt, you have to do it all the time. Success cannot allow you to be weak. You’ve got to be ready to hunt at all times, regardless of if you did or didn’t make the tournament.
“Until you’re the last team standing, you’re always on the hunt.”
Returning 82.8 percent of his scoring from a team that finished 18-14, Martin has plenty of ammo.
Because of that firepower, media day had an entirely different vibe than that of a year ago.
Back then, the theme was, “Trust us, we’ll be OK.”
This time around, it was junior Trae Golden, saying, “Actions speak louder than words.”
Asked if he’s the point guard of an NCAA tournament team, Golden added, “Yeah, but we’ve got to work.”
A year collectively spent rebuilding Tennessee basketball has the Vols reading the same script. Golden, along with forwards Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes, occupy starring roles. They’re surrounded by a supporting cast that knows its roles.
“We get each other, we know all the tendencies — who can do what,” said junior guard Jordan McRae.
Assistant coach Tracy Webster echoed McRae, saying, “You can just see it. They’re older. They understand each other.”
That continuity and rapport is a 180 from this time last season when new coaches, new roles and a new system made everything — new.
Now all commodities are known. It starts down low.
McRae didn’t hesitate in saying that Maymon and Stokes give UT one of the best frontcourts in the country. Talking specifically about Stokes, he raised his eyes and succinctly said, “Jarnell … is a monster.”
“I had to really find myself this offseason,” the 18-year-old sophomore said. “I think I found what I love — I love to bury guys in the post and that’s what I look forward to doing to guys this year.”
Martin, meanwhile, had little interest in speaking of past accomplishments or current aspirations.
The first day of practice is today. The first game is Nov. 9 against Kennesaw State at Thompson-Boling Arena.
That’s all that matters.
“By the looks of things with workouts, they put the work and time into it but there is still plenty of work to be done,” Martin said.
That’s because UT still likely will be picked behind Kentucky, Florida and possibly Missouri in the SEC.
Time to hunt.
“The end of last season,” Golden said, “added fuel to the fire.”
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn