KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Tennessee's Cuonzo Martin has preached toughness throughout his coaching career. This season he's taking that approach to a new level.
He isn't merely telling his players on the men's basketball team they need to be tougher than their opponents. He's putting it out for public consumption.
Tennessee enters the 2013-14 season with "A Tougher Breed" as its slogan. The motto is included in the team's media guide and also appears on some of its practice gear.
"That's something I think has been a part of our program, but now is probably the first time I've really revealed it as a coach because I feel like we're built for it," Martin said. "I thought in spurts (last season) we showed a level of toughness as a team, and I thought that was a brand. I didn't think it was right at the time to present it, but I think now is the time. We have the personnel across the board to wear that badge of honor, so to speak."
After settling for NIT appearances each of the last two seasons, Tennessee believes it can get to the NCAA tournament by being tougher than its opponents.
The Volunteers also figure to be older than most teams they'll face.
Tennessee has four players who made at least 16 starts for a team that went 20-13 last season. The Vols return first-team all-Southeastern Conference guard Jordan McRae and second-team all-SEC forward Jarnell Stokes. The Vols also welcome back former second-team all-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, who missed all of last season with an injured left knee.
The Vols could open the season Nov. 12 at Xavier with a starting lineup that features three seniors (Memphis transfer Antonio Barton, McRae and Maymon) plus two juniors (Stokes and guard Josh Richardson).
"Being an experienced team, we know the ins and outs of the game, what to expect and how to handle success and a little bit of failure," Barton said.
Tennessee also returns sophomore guard Armani Moore, who made 16 starts last year. The freshman class includes highly touted shooting guard Robert Hubbs III and Darius Thompson, who should make an immediate impact at point guard.
"If guys play up to their expectations, I don't see how teams could defend us consistently," Stokes said.
Tennessee's chances of living up to those expectations depend on whether it adopts the blue-collar mentality that inspired its team slogan.___-
Here are five things worth watching about Tennessee this season.
GETTING THE POINT: Tennessee needed to find a point guard to replace Trae Golden, now at Georgia Tech. Barton and Thompson figure to share that responsibility, with Barton's experience likely giving him the edge to start the season. Barton has adapted well to his new teammates. "The chemistry is amazing on and off the court, more so off the court," Barton said. "Guys are like family."
FASTER START: Tennessee was 11-10 overall and 3-6 in the SEC last year before going on a late-season surge. Two years ago, the Vols were 8-10 before closing the season on a rush. "We don't want to go in a hole and try to fight through like we have the past two years," McRae said. "I think having an older team, we're able to talk to the (younger) guys and let them know how important it is to start off fast."
MAYMON'S RETURN: Maymon averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game in 2011-12 before redshirting last season. Now he's back to fortify Tennessee's frontcourt. "When you sit out from doing something that you love, you get a lot of fire in your belly. ... I just can't wait to get out there and play with my teammates," Maymon said.
PLENTY OF BEEF: The combination of Maymon and Stokes - both listed at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds - could create matchup nightmares for opponents. Stokes averaged 12.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last season.
McRAE'S ENCORE: McRae was one of the SEC's most improved players last season and scored 15.7 points per game. He averaged 19.2 points and 37.7 minutes per game in league competition. He now wants to build on that momentum after spending the summer participating in the Kevin Durant and LeBron James skills academies.