That strategy worked beautifully in last Friday's opener. No Vol played more than 26 minutes and no Vol scored more than 15 points in an 80-63 defeat of Temple. This pattern – more guys playing fewer minutes each – will be repeated tonight in Game 2 against Arkansas-Monticello (7:30 tipoff at Thompson-Boling).
Thanks to superior depth, 10 Vols played double-digit minutes in Game 1 vs. Temple and each of them scored at least one basket. Asked if that could be a long-term trend, head coach Bruce Pearl nodded.
"I think so," he said. "You have an opportunity now to substitute when we break down defensively."
Obviously, Pearl faces a bit of a balancing act each game trying to ensure that all of the deserving players see enough action to make contributions. He also faces the challenge of winning, though, so there could be times when one guy may break the mold by playing 35 minutes and scoring 35 points.
"You also have an opportunity to keep a guy out there who's got a hot hand and keep groups together," Pearl said. "We've learning a lot about those guys that are out there ... and the balance."
With Dane Bradshaw departed and three newcomers – Tyler Smith, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams – added, Pearl will use these early-season games to experiment with a multitude of personnel groupings. This helps him learn how certain guys work together, particularly on defense. It also helps him build depth and team chemistry.
"This is what you want to do," the coach said. "This will serve you well now and, of course, as the season progresses. We talk about where the bar is set, and we've got to continue to define our roles. As long as we keep the focus on defense, it's an area we can improve the most. We have no problem scoring points."
Most teams would play preseason All-America pick Chris Lofton and preseason All-SEC picks JaJuan Smith and Tyler Smith around 33 minutes each. In Game 1, however, Lofton and JaJuan played just 26 minutes each while Tyler played 24. JaJuan scored 15 points, Lofton 10 and Tyler 9.
Lofton and JaJuan routinely combined to score 75-80 percent of Tennessee's points in last year's games. Those days appear to be history.
"Different nights it's going to be different people," JaJuan said. "We really can't tell you how it'll be every night because of the balance and the way we play."
With more players capable of contributing, the Vols will be better able to survive on nights when Lofton and JaJuan are misfiring from 3-point range or on nights when the starters are lethargic. If the first five is struggling, the second five is quite capable of picking up the slack.
"I think that's real big," JaJuan said. "You can come out quicker. We all believe in each other, and that means a lot."