The unknown zone

Tennessee basketball fans are a bit anxious to see what a new-look roster and a new-look coaching staff produce in Thursday night's exhibition opener versus Carson-Newman. First-year Vol head man Cuonzo Martin can relate; he's a bit anxious, too.

"For me as a coach, the biggest question mark I have is, 'What will we do in the actual game?'" Martin said following Wednesday's practice. "I like to think we'll play hard and compete at a high level. I'm not sure where we are as far as execution on offense. I'm excited to see us play, really. Just as much as the fans, I'm excited to see us play in a game."

Five key seniors and two underclassmen who chose pro ball over returning to UT (Tobias Harris, Scotty Hopson) are gone from a 2010-11 Big Orange squad that went just 19-15 with them. Because there is virtually no experience on the roster, the 2011-12 Vols are a real mystery team.

Martin plans to start a lineup of 6-8 junior Kenny Hall, 6-7 junior Jeronne Maymon, 6-6 senior Cameron Tatum, 6-5 sophomore Jordan McRae and 6-1 sophomore Trae Golden. That group practiced in orange jerseys Wednesday afternoon. Based on the substitution patterns, it appears that the top reserves will be 6-9 senior Renaldo Woolridge, 6-8 junior college transfer Dwight Miller, 6-5 freshman Quinton Chievous, 6-3 junior Skylar McBee and 6-1 freshman Wes Washpun. Yemi Makanjuola, a 6-9 freshman, appears to be the No. 3 option at center behind Hall and Woolridge. Josh Richardson, a 6-6 freshman, appears to be the No. 3 option at small forward behind Tatum and Chievous.

Martin says a second-teamer or two could play his way into the starting five with strong performances in the two exhibition games. Once the season starts, however, the coach isn't anticipating much change in his lineup.

"Once we roll the five after the first couple of games, that's the five unless somebody gets injured or somebody's not playing well at all," Martin said. "I'm not a guy that's big on taking a guy out because he's missing shots.... If a guy is just really struggling (in all phases of play) you might make a lineup change but I like to stick with the same lineup. At (previous stop) Missouri State I think we had the same lineup for a year and a half."

Martin believes a stable lineup helps each player understand and accept his role.

"A guy coming off the bench feels good knowing he's going in the game at the 16-minute mark and the guy coming out of the game knows he's got a two- or three-minute blow," the coach said. "I think guys play better when they know when they're playing, as opposed to a guy getting jerked in and out, doesn't know when he's getting his minutes. One night he plays, one night he doesn't. I think that makes it hard for a ball player to play with a level of confidence."

Martin put the Vols through a demanding preseason regimen designed to develop stamina, toughness and discipline. He believes he succeeded.

"I know we'll compete at a high level, play extremely hard," he said. "I know our guys will play with a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm. There may be a little hesitation starting out the game but I want those guys to play, have fun and relax."

Playing well usually builds confidence but Martin hopes to see confidence from his team Thursday night, whether it plays well or not.

"As a coaching staff, we want to solidify a starting five, as well as a rotation," he said. "But I also want to give those guys a level of confidence going into the game. Whether they're making or missing shots, have fun. If a guy shoots a bad percentage tomorrow night, as long as they're good shots, be ready to shoot that next shot. Confidence, more than anything, is what I'm looking for."

Martin said his approach will be the same in the exhibition opener as it will be in the regular-season opener. The major difference will be the rotation. He expects to play "12 or 13 guys" in the former, then pare his rotation to nine players when play starts for real.

Thursday night's tipoff is set for 7 o'clock at Thompson-Boling Arena. Carson-Newman is coached by Chuck Benson, who was an assistant at Tennessee under Wade Houston (1993-94) and Buzz Peterson (2003-05). Benson served as an administrative assistant to Kevin O'Neill from 1994-96.

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