Fans did not show up in big numbers for the Vols' two exhibition games, and those who did drop by Thompson-Boling Arena seemed hesitant to throw their full support behind a team generally pegged to finish near the bottom of the 12-team SEC this season.
The mood at tipoff of Friday night's regular-season opener was essentially the same. Although a pretty good crowd was on hand, the fans seemed to question — perhaps even to doubt — whether the 2011-12 Vols would give them anything to cheer about.
That skepticism evaporated quickly. Tennessee came out smoking, bolting to a 8-0 lead that got the crowd into the game. A slew of 3-pointers increased the bulge to 27-14 and increased the decibel level to a pretty impressive range. The arena continued getting noisier and noisier as the Big Orange continued pulling away en route to a 92-63 romp.
The lightly regarded Vols didn't just win their first game of the Cuonzo Martin era; they won over a lot of fans who seemed to be on the fence when the game started.
"I think our crowd loves hard-nosed basketball — diving into the crowd and diving on the floor for loose balls," sophomore wing Jordan McRae said. "I don't think Tennessee fans are used to seeing that. Now they're going to see uptempo defense and things like that all year."
Junior power forward Jeronne Maymon also sensed the fans warming to the Vols as Friday's opener progressed.
"I definitely think they were pretty pleased with the way we performed," he said. "I guess they know what we're capable of now, so hopefully they'll continue to come out and show support."
That's an intriguing issue. It will be interesting to see what type of crowd shows up for tonight's 7 o'clock tipoff versus the Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks. Mid-week games against low-profile foes generally have drawn sparse crowds at Tennessee, even when master marketer Bruce Pearl was head man, so Martin's new-look Vols vow to be grateful for any support they get.
"I definitely appreciate all of the fans who come out and continue to support us through the new era," Maymon said. "I guess we're a mystery team because you haven't seen most of us play sufficient minutes but we've all accomplished things in our careers. We're just now getting the stage to show it on."
Basically, Tennessee is facing three major obstacles as it tries to attract a faithful following:
1. A new coaching staff that is considerably more low-profile than the previous regime.
2. A bunch of unheralded and unproven players filling starting roles.
3. Preseason projections of an 11th-place finish in the 12-team SEC.
Given all of the above, Tennessee crowds may be in "show me" mode each time the Vols take the floor. Winning over the fans just might prove to be a season-long undertaking.
"That's what we try to do," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "We just try to show them we worked hard in the offseason and we're here to represent Tennessee in the right way."