When the official tosses the basketball skyward at 7:05 p.m. ET Thursday, it will have been 243 days—nearly eight months—since the Tennessee basketball team last faced an opponent in Thompson-Boling Arena.
A lot has changed within the program since March 6, but the Vols' mindset heading into Thursday's exhibition opener against Carson-Newman is nothing but eager and optimistic.
"It's that time," said senior forward Renaldo Woolridge when asked what will be going through his head when he takes the floor with his teammates for warm-ups with the band blaring. "That's the first thing I'll be thinking—it’s that time. It's finally here.
"New coaches, new season, new players, new roles. It's like the first day of a new journey."
First-year head coach Cuonzo Martin has put the Vols through a rigorous preseason gauntlet that has tested each player mentally as well as physically, and his team appreciates him for it.
But they're also ready to run and bang against a crop of new faces, instead of each other.
"It's kind of like a dog on a chain or a caged animal," junior forward Kenny Hall said. "We're finally getting ready to let the animal loose—at least that's the approach I'm taking."
Hall said Martin and his staff have fueled the players' desire to give their best effort each and every night.
"I love this opportunity to play for a coach who we've worked so hard for this offseason and who has put so much work into us," Hall said. "He's got so much knowledge of the game, and he knows where we're coming from since he's been a student-athlete. He has faith in us."
The new coaching staff isn't the only thing sure to catch the eye of the Tennessee fans who will fill Thompson-Boling Arena Thursday night.
New to the facility this season is a digital LED ribbon board that surrounds the playing floor and is mounted at the bottom of the arena's upper deck.
"We had a great arena anyway, but now there's no question that it makes it feel more like an NBA arena," sophomore guard Jordan McRae said. "It kind of makes the arena feel bigger, too."
UT STUDENTS VISIT PRACTICE
Tennessee's athletic marketing department invited UT students to attend Wednesday's practice in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Students in attendance were treated to free pizza, a speech from head coach Cuonzo Martin and an introduction of each team member.
"I just wanted to see what our team was all about this year," UT student Quinton Joynes said. "With a new coach and a young team, I'm expecting some good things." Jason McElvein, a UT student from Chattanooga, Tenn., was most impressed with the Vols' efforts to hamper the opposition offensively.
"I like the defensive intensity," McElvein said. "And I really liked the way they got after each other on the defensive end. Defense wins championships." When Martin spoke to the students following practice, he reminded them of the importance of the energy they bring to the team during games.
"We need and appreciate your support," Martin told them. "This is just as much your team as it is ours. When the fans are behind us and bringing a lot of energy, it really makes a difference."
MARTIN A CANDIDATE FOR PURDUE'S `LEGENDS OF MACKEY' PROMOTION
The Purdue University athletics department is currently conducting an online voting contest to select the "Legends of Mackey," and first-year Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin is on the elite list of Boilermaker greats eligible for selection.
Martin starred at Purdue from 1992-95 and helped lead the Boilermakers to a pair of Big 10 Conference championships under legendary coach Gene Keady. Martin scored 1,666 points in 127 career games and was selected by the Atlanta Hawks in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft.
He also finished his career as Purdue's all-time leader in 3-pointers made, with 179. Fans can cast their vote for Martin by clicking HERE to participate in the selection process that will determine the top 12 male and top 12 female players who competed for Purdue in Mackey Arena since it opened in 1967. Votes will be accepted through Dec. 31.
Assistant Coach Kent Williams
(On looking forward to his first game on the bench as a Vol)
"I'm excited because we've been here for about six months, and we've done everything else other than actually play a game. I'm just excited to get out there, and I know the players are too. But more than anything I'm just ready to go out and get that first game under our belt."
Freshman guard Brandon Lopez
(On finally getting to run out with the team on gameday wearing a Tennessee uniform.)
"It hasn't really hit me yet, but I'm sure it will. It will be great to finally go up against somebody else because we've been working really, really hard against each other in practice for a long time now."
Doug Kose, assistant athletics director for sales and marketing
(On the addition of ribbon scoreboards to Thompson-Boling Arena)
"This is a major enhancement and signals the completion of the final phase of upgrades to Thompson-Boling Arena. This gives us the ability to intensify our fan base and get them fired up for games. It's something you can't miss. You have to be looking at the video board, but it's going to be a little more obvious now.
"Thompson-Boling Arena takes a backseat to no one. We have one of the best, if not the best, facility in the nation. "
Voice of the Vols Bob Kesling
(On what he's most looking forward to Thursday)
"I think with this team, we're excited to see who will step up. Some of these guys have been waiting to be the go-to guys, and now there's no reason they can't step up. I'm really interested to see what Cameron Tatum will do and how Kenny Hall will do. I'm ready to see which of these young guys will step up. Skylar McBee is one of those guys who will get a lot of minutes and have some chances to score."