Looking ahead

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Cameron Tatum won't be representing the Tennessee Vols next winter but he'll be watching them build on the foundation he helped establish in 2011-12.

"Absolutely, I'll be back to watch," said Tatum, who concluded his college career in Monday night's NIT loss. "This is my home."

And "home," he believes, is going to showcase some excellent basketball in 2012-13. Tatum is convinced that Year 2 of the Cuonzo Martin era is going to be memorable.

"Everybody on the team has something that Coach Martin is going to bring out," Tatum said. "He's a great coach, a great motivator, and he brings out the best in everybody. I would say watch out for the team as a whole. This team is going to hurt from this (NIT) loss; they're going to come back with a vengeance and be stronger next year. I've got all the confidence in the world in them."

Barring a transfer or dismissal, Tennessee will return four starters and the top five reserves for 2012-13. That's in stark contrast to the 2011-12 season, when the Vols had to replace five of their top six scorers from the previous year.

"We're not losing too many people, so the offseason is going to really do wonders for us, as a team and individually," said Jeronne Maymon, who earned second-team All-SEC honors as a junior forward. "We're only going to get better as the days go on."

Junior guard Skylar McBee also sees the Vols improving on the 19-15 overall and 10-6 SEC records they posted in 2011-12.

"I definitely think we're headed up," he said. "We're going to be very tough to beat next year, especially with another offseason under Coach Martin. I'm definitely going to improve in all aspects, so we'll come back more experienced and a better team."

Martin's first act upon being hired last March was to replace the flex offense of predecessor Bruce Pearl with a motion offense. Tennessee's players should be a lot better running the motion attack now that they're familiar with the system.

"That will help a lot," sophomore point guard Trae Golden said. "The main thing is, we'll be much better at it, and that's going to be huge for us. We're all going to have experience, and that's something we're all looking forward to."

McBee agrees, noting: "The motion is a tough thing to learn that first year, especially with a bunch of guys learning different positions and different assignments. I definitely think we'll make strides this offseason, and it will look a whole lot better next year."

Martin confided last fall that it sometimes takes a year for players to get comfortable in the motion offense. Now that his returnees have that year behind them, he expects significant improvement.

"Always," he said. "With the constant moving, spacing, dribble-penetration, it always helps a program."

As much as Tennessee's offense should be improved next season, however, the defense should be even more so. Several Vols were shocked by the emphasis on defense last preseason. They'll know what to expect next preseason.

"I think it will help them," Martin said. "They have a year under their belts. They understand the level they've got to play at, the expectations and how hard you've got to compete."

Tennessee's players believe the team made dramatic strides on defense in 2011-12.

"I think we're one of the toughest defensive teams in the nation right now — just playing hard all the time," McBee said. "There's no letup. The buckets didn't fall (Monday night) but we still had a chance to win there at the end because our defense was there."

Maymon thinks the Vols will be better in all phases of play next season.

"We're definitely going to get way better on defense," he said. "I also think our offense is going to flow better. Basically, both ends of the court are going to really improve."

After playing some dreadful basketball in November and December, Tennessee rallied from a 10-12 start to win nine of its last 12 games. Maymon believes that progress bodes well for the future.

"At the start of the season we didn't know what we were or what it really took to be a good team until we started to put it all together," he said. "Coach Martin told us we, as players, had to take control of our own destiny. Once we got that together, we became a family almost and began getting wins. Down the stretch we had a good run."

Martin wholeheartedly agreed

"I thought our guys did a good job," he said. "From where they started to the end, I saw progress. I saw guys get better."

With almost all of the guys returning, the outlook for 2012-13 is bright.

"That's good," Martin said. "This team has a chance to be special."

Jordan McRae (52)

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