The benchmark of a successful season in sports is that you’re either playing for championships or gaining ground on doing so.
Tennessee’s men didn’t contend for the SEC championship in 2012-13. They finished fifth in the regular season and went out in the conference tournament quarterfinals.
It’s hard to make a convincing case that they gained ground either.
However the Vols and coach Cuonzo Martin are judged in his second season, it is in the context of losing Jeronne Maymon to a season-ending knee injury. In short, the senior who was arguably Tennessee’s best player and indisputably its best leader didn’t play a second.
So in the big picture, maybe the whole season gets a pass. At least an asterisk.
Still, 33 games got completed, a dozen other players toiled for five months and another class of recruits got signed.
Is the state of the program better than it was a year ago? That’s a fair debate.
In many ways, things seem about the same.
Martin’s second team went 20-13, a slight improvement over his first team’s 19-15.
His second team finished 11-7 in an expanded SEC schedule, compared to 10-6 a year ago.
One improvement: there were no bad mid-major losses as was the case in 2011-12 with Austin Peay and College of Charleston.
There was Martin’s first win over Kentucky and another upset of Florida — if beating Florida is still considered an upset. On the down side, the Vols were swept by both Georgia and Ole Miss.
Both of Martin’s seasons have had similarly distasteful endings: too-early SEC tournament exits, snubs from the NCAA selection committee and uninspired NIT losses.
Player development, statistically at least, was a mixed bag. Some improved, others retreated.
Jordan McRae was clearly UT’s most improved player, from erratic role player as a sophomore to All-SEC as a junior. Josh Richardson made a solid jump in his second season.
After a slow start, Jarnell Stokes rallied to improve his scoring and rebounding averages. His shooting percentages remained remarkably close to his freshman season.
For whatever reasons, Trae Golden, Skylar McBee, Kenny Hall and Yemi Makanjuola experienced slight drops in production.
Nagging injuries no doubt affected Golden’s and McBee’s shooting touch. A four-guard rotation reduced the roles of big men Hall and Makanjuola.
None of Martin’s four recruits made significant statistical contributions, despite Armani Moore’s 16 starts.
What matters now is how much ground the Vols can gain in 2013-14.
Maymon’s return is a good place to start. In a best-case scenario, McRae and Stokes return for another year and Golden has an epiphany about consistent point-guard leadership.
Five-star signee Robert Hubbs is a great addition by Martin. However, six SEC teams are among Rivals.com’s top 30 recruiting classes for 2013 and Tennessee is not one of them.
Florida, Ole Miss and Missouri — the SEC’s three NCAA tournament teams —will be hard hit by graduation.
Other underclassmen will move on. If Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is one of them, a Georgia sweep is less a threat.
Kentucky is reloading in a big way, but we now know that’s not a sure thing.
Gaining ground is mandatory for the Vols in 2013-14. In that best-case scenario, competing for a championship should be the goal.
Mike Strange may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Strangemike44.