Despite faltering late in the NIT against Middle Tennessee State on Monday, Cuonzo Martin's Tennessee Volunteers have plenty to be excited about as they look forward to the 2012-13 season.
The expectations were low on Rocky Top this season, as the Vols were projected during the preseason to finish 11th in the SEC. However, they more than defied their critics, going 10-6 in SEC play and finishing second in the conference.
A No. 1 seed in the NIT may have been a letdown after Tennessee's hot finish to the regular season inspired Big Dance hopes, but it was better than what was expected from a team that lost four starters in the offseason.
Sophomore Trae Golden and junior power forward Jeronne Maymon stepped in to lead the Vols as they averaged 13.7 and 12.6 points per game, respectively. They both averaged less than three points per game in 2010-11.
Maymon even earned second-team All-SEC honors.
Five-star recruit Jarnell Stokes gave the Vols a boost when he enrolled in January and earned his way into the starting lineup, pumping up the fanbase and injecting excitement into the team.
So, what reasons do the Rocky Top rowdies have to be pumped about the 2012-13 season?
After decades of men's basketball mediocrity at Tennessee, the arrival and short tenure of Bruce Pearl quickly pumped energy into a program that desperately needed it and created one of the most electric atmospheres in college basketball.
The fallout of Pearl's situation and a non-home run hire (at least initially) had those around the program doubting that those days would return in the near future. However, the fanbase has rallied around Martin's hard-working and defensive-minded prowess.
After reeling in fan favorite Jarnell Stokes, Thompson-Boling Arena was rocking for the rest of the season. It was even electric for the nobody-cares-NIT!
The Vols defended their home court well this season, only losing four times at home on the season and only once in the SEC. A more mature and experienced team should be able to avoid tough home losses like those against Austin Peay and MTSU.
Whether or not Cuonzo Martin lands another 5-star recruit remains to be seen, but he's got enough incoming players to boost his squad's depth.
The Vols landed a much-needed transfer in point guard Cory Stanton, who played his first season at Clemson before transferring to Lipscomb. Trae Golden isn't primarily a point guard, although he made the switch well, so the emergence of Stanton could help Golden flourish as a scorer.
Stanton, who won't be eligible until December but will be practicing with the team, could be the true point guard that the Vols need on their roster. A starting lineup of Stanton, Golden, one of the 'Mcs (McRae or McBee), Stokes and Maymon could be a lethal lineup rolling into SEC play.
Versatile Florida forward Derek Reese should give the Volunteers some size and athleticism to be an even more athletic team on both ends of the floor. The Vols could use his help at the 3-guard with Cam Tatum gone.
The Vols return the bulk of their team following the 2011-12 season, meaning they will be more battle-tested and used to the big games coming their way.
This team showed enough grit and toughness to beat the Sweet 16's Florida Gators twice, which sets the stage for even bigger upsets next season. Could the Vols be the first team to beat John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena?
After seemingly being a Vol for decades, Cam Tatum has finally played his last game for the University of Tennessee. Despite being the only returning starter, Tatum was only the fourth leading scorer on the team.
The Vols also lose Renaldo "Swiperboy" Woolridge, who's more well-known for his rap-star surname than his talent on the court. Although, the Vols benefited from his size and athleticism.
Woolridge will always be remembered for his key performance against No. 1 Kansas, one of the biggest wins in the program's history.
Compared to last year, when they lost more than 60 percent of their scoring, the Vols will be going through the offseason with their heads held high, knowing that they'll be getting better with virtually the same team intact.
The difference in this Tennessee team heading into next season will be 6'8" forward Jarnell Stokes.
Stokes was able to change the atmosphere of the program just with his presence in 2012. His talent as a top-15 recruit was shown at times through his elusive post moves and rebounding skill, but it was also obvious that he was thrown into the fire and wasn't completely ready to dominate the college game.
Stokes averaged nine points and nearly eight rebounds in 17 games this season, and he averaged 13 points per contest in the Vols' last five games. He has the full package to be an All-SEC player and a lottery pick in next year's NBA draft.
The 250-pound Stokes will immensely benefit from an offseason to work on his game with the team and will come into his own during his sophomore campaign.
One of the toughest players in college basketball, the Vols will only go as far as Jeronne Maymon takes them in 2012-13.
Maymon is the heart and soul of this Tennessee team. He's assumed the leadership role on the court and helps to energize his teammates through his play.
Averaging 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season, Maymon dominated the post, and it was hard for opposing teams to find a player that could even guard him. It'll make it that much harder for teams to guard him when he has an equally-skilled Jarnell Stokes on the floor with him.
His 32-point, 20-rebound performance against Memphis in the Maui Invitational is only a sign of things to come for this frontcourt bruiser.
The 6'7", 265-pound Maymon will be a senior next season, and you can bet he'll be more motivated than ever to carry this Volunteer team on an NCAA tournament run next year.