Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin walked into an impossible situation when he accepted the challenge of filling the enormous shoes left by Bruce Pearl in Knoxville.
The challenge for Martin was compounded when Tobias Harris and Scotty Hopson left for the NBA, forcing the Vols to replace four starters. It’s no surprise they were picked to finish 11th in the SEC in 2011.
But despite a losing record after just seven games, Martin’s team has shown promise against some of the elite programs in the nation.
With single digit loses against two top-20 teams, and strong performance against fifth-ranked Duke, the Vols have shot a healthy dose of optimism into the fan base.
With conference play just around the corner, Martin’s squad will need to learn from their losses in order to finish with a strong conference record and a shot at the tournament.
Here are five keys to the Tennessee Volunteers' success in the SEC.
From the start, Martin preached the importance of a dominant defense and began a “Get Tough” program in practice to encourage his team to play more physical.
This mentality, however, has yet to translate to success on the court.
The Vols are allowing an average of 75 points a game, and had abysmal defensive performances against Oakland and Memphis. Both teams scored over 50 points in a single half.
Tennessee is scoring at a higher rate than expected (80.6 per game), but the Vols can’t expect to keep pace with Florida, Kentucky, and Arkansas, who are all averaging more than 80 points a game.
Unless Jeronne Maymon can have multiple 34 and 20 performances, the Vols lack enough firepower to keep pace in the SEC
The key difference in Tennessee's strong showings against Duke, Memphis, and Pitt, and their embarrassing loss at Oakland, was rebounding from big men Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall.
In the Maui Invitational against the Blue Devils and Tigers, Maymon finished with double-digit rebounds, including 20 against Memphis.
Most recently against Pitt, Hall made up for Maymon's struggles with 12 boards in the five-point loss.
At Oakland, however, both players failed to reach double digits combined.
Consequently, the Vols allowed 89 points by the Golden Grizzlies (their largest point total allowed all season in regulation) and suffered their first loss to a non-ranked opponent.
On the other hand, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Ole Miss are all averaging over 40 rebounds a game.
Sophomore point guard Trae Golden stepped up early in the season as team leader for the Vols.
In replacing graduated senior Melvin Goins, Golden has already bested his predecessor's average in assists (6.1 compared to 2.8 for Goins) and points (which he has more than doubled).
In losses to Memphis and Pitt, Golden found ways to make his presence felt. Whether through five rebounds, seven assists, and three steals against the Tigers or six assists and a critical late three pointer against the Panthers, Golden's contributions go far beyond his points total.
But like Maymon and Hall, Golden's poor showing against Oakland (1 assist, 36 percent shooting, and fouled out) was devastating for the Vols.
With superstar point guards from Alabama, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt looming, the Vols may live and die on the performance from Golden this season.
Bruce Pearl won devotees across the state by beating teams once thought to be outside Tennessee's league.
Non-conference wins over Kansas, Memphis, Pitt, Ohio State, and Villanova (along with multiple conference wins over Florida, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt) drew national attention to Knoxville and pulled the team out of the SEC cellar.
Dumbfounding losses, however, plagued Pearl throughout his tenure at Tennessee.
In the 2010-11 season alone, the Vols suffered bad losses against seven non-tournament teams, including four from the SEC.
Martin won't find himself on the hot seat if losses come at the hands of highly ranked teams, but he will if he doesn't take care of teams with equal or lesser talent.
As seen in the four losses this season, the loss to Oakland stands out from the rest, as the lone, glaring stain to an otherwise promising start.
Under Bruce Pearl, Tennessee basketball reached the heights of success before the NCAA dropped the hammer on the program and the university.
It's difficult to determine the extent of the damage, but it's obvious the team is nowhere close to the level it once was.
Where the team had grown accustomed to competitive play against elite teams, these wins may be few and far between for the indeterminate future.
However, Tennessee players and fans would do well to keep the 2011-12 season in proper perspective.
While losses to rivals Kentucky, Florida, Memphis, and Vanderbilt are frustrating, a destructive attitude can only make matters worse. The team is rebuilding, and losses to strong programs should only serve as learning tools.
Even if the Vols fail to make the NCAA tournament, Martin has made it clear he is more interested in building a foundation than instant results.
Success, it seems, may be in a stronger team in 2012.