The Vols didn't lack for talent with forward Brandon Crump, shooting guard Scooter McFadgon and point guard C.J. Watson, who were all among the best in the Southeastern Conference at their positions.
The solution was simple for fourth-year coach Buzz Peterson after his team lost 56-53 at George Mason in the first round of the NIT and finished the season 15-14 and 0-8 on the road in SEC play.
"We want to take that next step," said Peterson, who won the NIT in his first and only year at "cradle of coaches" Tulsa in 2001. "We've been to the NIT twice and the next step is the NCAA Tournament. How do we get there?
"I've gone over it a lot in the summer and I think the leadership will be a big role of it."
Rather than let his team select captains, Peterson took the step of naming Crump, McFadgon and Watson as team leaders with the realization the talented but not always talkative trio would have to learn the roles.
Peterson had them read books and articles on leadership over the summer and he gave them some advice from his days as a player under the great Dean Smith at North Carolina playing with the likes of Michael Jordan and James Worthy.
Even though McFadgon, Crump and Watson aren't big talkers, leadership, Peterson said, is about more than just words.
Actions and focus will go a long way toward the big-picture goals of making noise in the SEC and making the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2001.
"As the head coach, if we can get that from those three guys, that will be a big ingredient for us to take the next step," Peterson said. "I've told them, concentrate on the process, rather than the result. I think if they focus every day on getting better, the final answer will be there."
Should the Vols live up to their potential and start cleaning up their road struggles, they should be a strong contender in the Eastern Division and SEC overall with some of the most experience and ability around.
"Our mindset should be better," Crump said. "We should be more focused. We've been preaching playing good defense, especially on the road. Nobody wants to have the same outcome as last year."
McFadgon was second in scoring last year with a 17.8 average, Watson has the most assists of any SEC point guard in the last two years and Crump averaged 14.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and posted eight double-doubles last year.
Tennessee also gets a boost from 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward Andre Patterson, who led the Pac-10 in field goal percentage at UCLA as a sophomore in 2002 (60.8) and averaged 7.5 points before transferring to Knoxville and siting out last year.
Crump said he thinks Patterson will be a big help keeping double-teams off him inside because he can play the high post so well and step out to his 15-17 foot jumpers.
"He can knock down a jumper from the free throw line, he's very athletic, he can block shots and run the floor," Crump said.
Patterson is one of six Vols who have either redshirted, transferred or both.
Crump redshirted his first year, McFadgon had to sit after transferring from Memphis, Jordan Howell was a Georgia signee who bolted after the Jim Harrick scandal and sat last year, Jamere Hendrix redshirted two years ago after coming from Clemson and junior Stanley Asumnu spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy.
All are plenty hungry and Peterson doesn't have to do nearly as much rah-rah motivation anymore.
Tennessee has two freshmen who could be stars in the making as well.
JaJuan Smith, a 6-1, 181-pound guard and Kentucky Mr. Basketball winner Chris Lofton (6-2, 190) can provide even more backcourt scoring for an already offensive-oriented bunch.
Peterson has made defense the emphasis of the preseason, but he thinks Smith and Lofton could be special.
"We know McFadgon and Watson could shoot it, but these guys (Lofton and Smith) can really shoot the basketball," Peterson said. "It's really helped us as far as offense. We haven't done a lot of offense, but they've had some high marks in our shooting drills and that's good to see."
Expectations are high for a team coming off two straight one-and-dones in the NIT, but Crump and Co. share those lofty goals.
"This is my last go-around and we want to make this the best year we've had here," Crump said. "We want to do this for us and for coach Peterson."
Tennessee Trying To Take Next Step
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