The Volunteers believe their struggles in the first half of the last two seasons kept them from earning NCAA tournament bids each year. Tennessee begins its latest quest for an NCAA invitation Tuesday at Xavier, which had its own rare absence from the tournament last season.
“The last two years, we came out slow,” Tennessee forward Jeronne Maymon said. “We want to get a fast start this year.”
Tennessee’s season opener marks the return of Maymon, a former second-team all-Southeastern Conference selection who redshirted last season with an injured left knee. The 6-foot-8 senior averaged 7.5 points, 7 rebounds and 16 minutes in two exhibition games.
“The biggest thing is that if he’s not fresh, he’s not as effective,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We’ve got to keep his legs fresh and keep him going. He’s one of those big guys... who’s constantly moving. He’s not a guy who stands still around the rim. He’s all over the place. We have to keep him fresh.”
Tuesday’s game gives both teams a chance to make an early impression on the NCAA tournament selection committee.
Tennessee earned six consecutive NCAA bids from 2006-11 before settling for the NIT each of the last two seasons. Xavier went 17-14 last season to end a string of seven straight NCAA appearances.
“I told our kids you don’t play make-or-break games in November,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “But you do play tournament games. You play games that can matter at the end of the year when teams are getting compared. You absolutely can put a feather in your cap. Again, this game won’t make or break us, nor will it make or break Tennessee. But it’s a huge challenge.”
Xavier opened its season Friday with an 88-59 rout of Gardner-Webb. The Musketeers played without point guard Dee Davis, who sustained a concussion in a preseason scrimmage. Freshman guard Myles Davis hurt his knee and junior forward Justin Martin got hit in the head against Gardner-Webb.
Mack wouldn’t speculate on which of those guys might be able to play against Tennessee.
Tennessee also enters the game with an injury issue. Memphis transfer Antonio Barton, the Vols’ projected starting point guard, missed both of Tennessee’s exhibition games after injuring his left leg in an Oct. 25 practice. Martin said he expects Barton to play Tuesday, though freshman Darius Thompson likely will start in his place.
This marks the first time Tennessee has begun a season away from home since opening the 2004-05 schedule with a 69-57 victory over Stanford in the Maui Invitational. Martin said he believed his team was mature enough to face this kind of challenge early, as Tennessee returns three of its top four scorers from last year.
The Vols still must prove they’re experienced enough to avoid an early-season slump. Last season, Tennessee started out 11-10 before rallying late to finish 20-13. Two years ago, the Vols were 8-10 at one point before ending up 19-15.
“I don’t know why” it’s happened, Tennessee guard Josh Richardson said. “But this year, we’ve got so much experience and guys coming back, I don’t think we’ll have that problem.”