Tennessee won 19 games in 2011-12 and 20 in 2012-13 but failed to measure up either year. Making matters worse, the Vols suffered a second-round loss in the 2012 NIT and a first-round loss in the 2013 NIT.
So, as the Big Orange prepares to open the 2013-14 season tonight at Xavier (9 p.m. tipoff on Fox Sports 1), the obvious question is: What must the Vols do to take the next step and move from NIT team to NCAA team?
"We've just got to be more focused," sophomore forward Derek Reese said. "Take every team and every game as serious as if it was the national championship game."
Apparently, Tennessee's focus is fuzzy at the start of each season. The 2011-12 Vols opened 10-12, then put together a too-little, too-late rally. The 2012-13 Vols also stumbled out of the starting gate, going 9-8 before launching another too-little, too-late finish. Tennessee's players are acutely aware that poor starts cost them NCAA Tournament bids each of the past two seasons.
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Incredibly, Tennessee posted better SEC records than non-conference records in both 2011-12 (10-6 versus 9-9) and 2012-13 (11-7 versus 9-6). That's truly bizarre.
"Yeah, it makes no sense," Maymon said. "I honestly have no clue why that is. But that's our focus: To make sure we have a good start this year."
Senior guard Jordan McRae thinks Maymon's absence contributed greatly to last season's slow start.
"When Jeronne got hurt last year nobody knew who was going to take on that scoring role," McRae said. "Now everybody's healthy going into season, so everybody's looking forward to it. Everybody knows their role going into this season. It's exciting.
"We've just got to start off better than we have in the past. That's our focus this year: We're not going to start off slow."
Junior wing Josh Richardson also believes Maymon's availability will prevent another slow start in 2013-14.
"I feel we've taken a big step getting Jeronne back," Richardson said. "Plus, we have a lot of experience this year. That will help when games get tough and you're grinding it out, as opposed to having a lot of young guys like my freshman year. We have a lot more older guys now that have been through that fire and know how it feels."
Senior wing D'Montre Edwards also points to experience as a key to taking the next step and becoming an NCAA Tournament team.
"Experience helps a whole lot," he said. "We've got guys like Jordan McRae and Jeronne Maymon helping the freshmen out, being leaders."
Another factor Edwards believes will help the Vols avoid a slow start this season is camaraderie.
"We play together and we're always hanging out," he said. "There are things we do off the court. We're always talking, making sure everyone's OK."
Sophomore guard Armani Moore says missing the NCAA Tournament two years in a row has the Vols exceptionally focused heading into this season.
"You never want to repeat the past," he said. "This year we know we have a pretty bright future, so we don't want to have any mishaps. I feel like all of the upperclassmen have got to be accountable for what goes on with this team. The coaches take part of the accountability but we, as a team, have to be willing to do it ourselves. If everybody can dig deep, keep working hard and lock in, we should be great."
Richardson agrees that missing The Dance two years in a row has ramped up the intensity level heading into 2013-14.
"It's very motivating for us," he said. "It's not our only motivation for the year but that's a big part. It's one of those things that doesn't even have to be said. Everybody just knows."
Bottom line: If the Vols play up to their potential they should make The Dance and make some noise come March.
"We've got the tools," Richardson said. "We just need to put it all together."
After blowing NCAA bids with slow starts the past two seasons, the Vols need to put it all together now.