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Relieved of his duties as a Tennessee basketball assistant in March, Tony Jones had the last laugh. Before departing, he saddled the 2011-12 Vols with a fiendishly difficult non-conference schedule.

In addition to eight games against currently or recently ranked SEC rivals, the slate features five games against four non-SEC teams who can be found in the latest Associated Press rankings — No. 7 Duke, No. 9 UConn, No. 15 Pittsburgh and No. 21 Memphis (twice). The Big Orange already faced Duke, Pitt and Memphis, losing the three games by an average of 5.7 points.

Some fans may be discouraged by Tennessee's 3-4 record but senior wing Cameron Tatum is not. He believes the rugged early-season schedule will pay dividends in the long run.

"It prepares us for this tough SEC road that's coming up," he said. "There's going to be a lot of top-25 teams in our (SEC Eastern) division, as well. Once those games come up, we'll know what's going to hit us and we'll be ready for 'em."

In addition to scheduling three top-25 foes among the first seven games, Jones stuck the jet-lagged Vols with a road game against one of the NCAA's top mid-majors (Oakland) two days after returning to the mainland following taxing tests against Duke and Memphis in Hawaii. Leg-weary Tennessee trailed from wire to wire in that one and fell 89-81.

Obviously, the Vols could have played a softer pre-conference schedule and be 6-1 instead of 3-4. Still, first-year head man Cuonzo Martin thinks the competitive losses to Duke (67-77), Memphis (97-99 in two OTs) and Pitt (56-61) will prove beneficial.

"I like to think it will help our guys because you've seen some of the best and there's not much more you'll see," he said. "There won't be anything where we say, 'Oh, man! I haven't seen this.' We won't get smacked in the face from the standpoint of 'These guys are really good.' Everybody's good, and our guys understand that."

Despite inheriting a roster that was minus five of the top six scorers from the previous season, Martin says he had no misgivings about Tennessee's inclusion in a Maui Invitational field that included Duke, Memphis and nationally ranked Michigan.

"As a staff, getting on that plane going to Hawaii we wanted to win that tournament," the Vol coach said. "We really felt that and believed that."

With four new starters in Tennessee's 2011-12 lineup and a meat-grinder of a pre-conference schedule, however, a slow start was virtually inevitable. Though he isn't into moral victories, Martin seems encouraged by the competitive nature of the Vols' losses.

"I thought it was great for our guys to go up against some of the best teams in the country in these first seven games ... to play teams of this caliber," he said. "You obviously want to win the ball games but I think it's good for our guys because you have to learn in order to move forward. I thought our guys did a great job of really battling and defending."

Besides, losing often forces competitive young athletes to work harder at learning how to win.

"As a player, you have to go through it," Martin said. "You can pick a breakdown here and a breakdown there (that proved decisive). You emphasize this, and all of a sudden you let up in this area. I just think it's a part of your growth as a team more than anything."

Tatum agrees, noting: "Those games (versus ranked foes) were close. Had we made some of the necessary defensive plays and not had some defensive lapses, those games could've gone our way, especially that Memphis game. The show of growth for this team is when we're able to pull out close games like that."

Junior center Kenny Hall is convinced the Vols will pull out close games if they continue competing at a high level.

"I think it's heart more than anything," he said. "If you just keep putting your heart out on the floor, you're bound to get a W."

Martin used different words to convey much the same message, noting: "It's just a matter of us playing with a level of confidence, a level of focus and, more importantly, a level of toughness from start to finish."

Despite the 3-4 record, Tennessee's players exhibit plenty of confidence and absolutely zero panic. That probably comes straight from the top.

"Everything with us is positive — toughness, energy and being ready to go," Martin said. "It doesn't matter who we face."

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