Standing in Gate B of Milan Airport, Jeronne Maymon leaned back against a wall. A tranquil Italian voice was the lone background noise.
“Si prega di non lasciare il bagaglio incustodito.”
Please do not leave your bags unattended.
Dreading the 10-hour flight ahead, Maymon was asked to reflect on the 10 days behind.
“This set the tone for the whole season,” the Tennessee senior said.
That was seven months ago, on Aug. 15, back when UT’s season was a hopeful nugget, dangling in the distance.
The cord was cut last week. A 75-67 loss to Mercer in the first round of the NIT is the postscript to a campaign that began with an exhibition tour of Italy, traveled to an in-season tournament in Puerto Rico, dropped down low, came back up and finished with a whimper.
The loss to Mercer was preceded by an SEC tournament loss to Alabama that ultimately popped the Vols’ NCAA tournament bubble.
A 20-13 record is in the books.
The aforementioned Maymon — the top Vol who appeared on billboards in Knoxville and in ads in this newspaper — never played a minute.
“Of course with Jeronne we’re a better team, but without him I thought we did some really good things once our guys realized certain guys had to step up,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday.
If the trip abroad set the tone to 2012-13, Maymon’s injured knee, which loitered like a teenager at the mall, was the year’s bass drum.
It dictated everything.
The news came prior to a preseason scrimmage at Georgia Tech in late October. Martin announced Maymon, who underwent microscopic knee surgery after the 2011-12 season to address a torn meniscus and briefly played in two of UT’s four games in Italy, would start the season on the sideline. There had been a setback, Martin explained, but the preseason second-team All-SEC selection was “obviously not lost for the season.”
Maymon most certainly was and, in hindsight, his absence sawed the season in half. On one side, reality said the Vols couldn’t reach full potential. On the other, the void opened the door for some Vols to dictate their own importance.
On Jan. 6, the program put Maymon’s season in a storage locker. A medical redshirt retained his final year of eligibility, allowing him to postpone his final season to 2013-14.
The unwanted news hammered a banged-up program. There was, though, at last a sense of clarity. The Vols not only struggled playing without Maymon, but also struggled to grasp when, or if, he would return. Seasons can’t be played in limbo.
“Every guy was expected to do his part, but then we lost a big part that we were expecting to do certain things,” Martin said. “Then you have to make adjustments, but while you’re making adjustments, you’re playing against good teams. You’re still playing Oklahoma State and going to Georgetown and Virginia while you’re trying to figure it out. It’s not like we knew early, ‘OK, Jeronne is out for the year.’ ”
Martin added that, “Jeronne Maymon wasn’t the reason we started slow —we needed to get it done,” but stars aren’t replaced like water filters.
The trickle-down effect drenched everyone. Jarnell Stokes had to learn to play through double-teams and rebound without his 6-foot-7, 260-pound frontcourt mate. Jordan McRae had to grow into a leading scorer capable of playing 36, 37, 38 minutes per game. Trae Golden’s importance was ratcheted up. Some role players were forced to play out of position.
Eventually things were figured out.
“Chemistry as a team propelled us to win eight out of nine,” Martin said. “They could have let it gone south. But they didn’t. They gelled.”
Though Maymon never played, expectations for the Vols scarcely changed. It was NCAA tournament or bust.
In the end, a Tennessee team picked to finish fourth in the SEC preseason poll — under the assumption Maymon would play — instead finished fifth without him.
“I don’t think that that’s probably talked about enough,” Martin said.
So now the focus shifts to next year, Martin’s third on Rocky Top. He said Maymon is pain free in workouts, adding, “If you look at his body, it’s probably better than when he was playing.”
“I project him to be in the starting lineup next year,” Martin said, before dropping this caveat, “barring any major injuries.”
That will set the tone for 2013-14.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn.