Team of mystery

Heading into a basketball season is a lot like heading into a dark cave: You just don't know what's waiting for you.

That's especially true for the Tennessee Basketball Vols. Even after exhibition defeats of Carson-Newman (73-52) and Lincoln Memorial University (76-67), first-year head man Cuonzo Martin admits that the 2011-12 Vols are a mystery as tonight's 7 o'clock tipoff versus UNC Greensboro in the regular-season opener approaches.

"I think there are so many unknowns because you have to go through it in order to find out where you are as a team," Martin said. "You have to hit that tough spot — that rough patch where you lose a couple of games in a row — to see how guys respond to it as a team.

"Who's pointing fingers? Who's not defending? Who's not making shots? Then you see how guys are in the locker room ... who's still leading the team and helping it stick together?"

The Vols would be a bit more predictable if the key components of last year's team were back. They aren't. Gone are last season's coaching staff and seven key players, including two underclassmen who chose pro ball over finishing their collegiate eligibility. Replacing them is an all-new staff and five unheralded signees.

Given all of the above, fans have no idea what to expect this season, and Cuonzo Martin can relate.

"This is a new team," he conceded. "Even though you have juniors and a couple of seniors, this is a whole new ball club. Only Cameron Tatum has played a number of minutes at this level, and this is a big-time level."

Even Tennessee's players have very little idea what to expect after playing two Div. II teams in exhibition games.

"It's one of those deals where guys right now are kind of finding their way," Martin said. "Who's the leading scorer? Who's the go-to guy? Who's going to give us production on the block? There are so many unknowns ... that's why we want to be consistent on defense and have that be a mainstay for us while we find our way offensively."

Junior wing Skylar McBee admits that Tennessee is something of an unknown quantity but insists that he has seen enough in practice to develop a feel for this team.

"I have the utmost confidence in every one of the guys that's on our team," he said. "I know what they're capable of. I've seen it in practice and know they're going to be successful. I really don't have any doubts."

McBee may have no doubts but fans do. For one thing, they question whether or not this team has a clue in terms of shot selection. Jordan McRae attempted some shots Monday night versus LMU that no one not named Michael Jordan has ever made. In addition, the Vols launched a whopping 62 shots from 3-point range in the two exhibitions. That figure had even Cuonzo Martin shaking his head a bit.

"Those shots are flying but I think that's a good thing," the coach said with a soft grin. "There weren't as many bad shots as I thought. We watched both games and charted every shot that was taken. There weren't many bad shots ... probably some quick shots where we didn't move the ball like we need to.

"But I'd rather have the guys overly confident, as opposed to hesitant, going into game situations. You can always reel the guys in and say 'Let's make five or six passes, then get a good shot.' But if you've got guys hesitant and nervous about shooting the ball you're in for a long night."

Although Tennessee ranked 11th among the 12 SEC teams in 3-point shooting last season at a paltry 30.0 percent, most of the Vols fancy themselves long-range gunners. Naturally, they love having the freedom to launch at will.

"That's the kind of coach I want to play for: If you've got an open shot, take it," McBee said. "Coach Martin is really, really good about that. As long as you're playing hard and working your butt off at the defensive end, he wants you to take those shots on the offensive end. I like playing for a guy like that."

The 3-point barrage that worked against Div. II opponents in preseason may not work quite so well against Div. I opponents now that the regular season has arrived, however. Tatum, the only returning starter from 2010-11, concedes as much.

"I doubt we'll keep putting up thirty 3s a game," he said, "but we do enjoy having a coach that doesn't mind that. That gives you a lot of confidence to keep shooting because one night you're going to hit thirty 3s."

The Vols' shooting needs to be consistently good because their defense was sub-standard against LMU. They allowed the Railsplitters to hit 53.6 percent (15 of 28) of their second-half shots and cut a 23-point deficit to four at one time.

"As a team we need to work on our defensive assignments," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "We really need to make sure we come ready to play from the tip, don't come out sluggish, and defend. If we do that, everything else will fall into place."

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