Knoxville, Tenn.--(UTSports) Branded as “a tougher breed” – an ode to the physical, hard-nosed, bruising style of play they’re expected to employ – the Tennessee basketball team officially reported for duty for the 2013-14 season this week.
Entering their third season under the direction of head coach Cuonzo Martin, the Volunteers practiced once Monday afternoon before hitting the hardwood for a pair of workouts on Tuesday. All three workouts were dominated by drills focusing on sound basketball fundamentals and individual skill development.
When Martin met with reporters prior to Tuesday afternoon’s workout, he stressed the importance of establishing depth, as one-third of the roster is made up of newcomers.
"For us, having a strong bench is the biggest thing right now," Martin said. "We can't have Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon playing 35 minutes-plus a game. That's too many minutes for those guys. It's such a long season, so we have to strengthen our bench. We have the personnel to do it, but it's a matter of putting guys in a position to be successful."
The trio of upperclassmen Martin mentioned serves as a potent and experienced nucleus on a squad that is projected by many college basketball analysts as a preseason top-25 team. While all the pieces of the puzzle may be accounted for, it is initially unclear exactly how those pieces fit together.
“I think we've got about four or five guys trying to find where they best fit on this team,” Martin said. “They're talented enough to be playing, it's just a matter of where they fit. Because, you know, you can't play everybody.”
One big piece of the Vols’ puzzle is Maymon, a redshirt-senior forward who missed all of last season with a knee injury after earning All-SEC acclaim in 2011-12.
"It's good to have him back – just his feel for the game, his leadership on the floor, his ability to defend, work hard and make plays" Martin said. "The guys love having him around.
"When he sat out, I think he really learned to appreciate the game. He saw some of the things that we see as coaches. And that can always help. Jeronne is one of only a few guys at his age who isn't afraid to tell another guy that (that person) is a good player. I think that helps his game a lot. He knows who he is as a basketball player, and he knows what we need in order for us to be successful as a team."
With top-25 expectations, several legitimate postseason honors candidates and multiple players listed as projected NBA Draft picks, Martin and his staff are steadfast in their efforts to keep the team at an even keel.
"We can't get caught up in what people are saying (about us as a team), because we know what we see every day in practice. We know what we have to do to be successful.
"The biggest key where we have to get stronger is seven through 10 on the bench. I think we might have seven solid guys, and we need another three guys to be strong. Now I'm not saying we'll play 10, but we've got to get better in that area."
EARLY START = PRESTIGE WORLDWIDE
In previous years, teams opened preseason practice on Oct. 15. However, new NCAA legislation passed in May now allows programs to commence practicing 42 days before their first game of the season. Within that 42-day window, schools get 30 practice days and 12 “off” days. It’s up to each school’s coaching staff how they schedule their workouts within that framework.
For Martin and the Vols, Monday was opening day on the Pratt Pavilion hardwood.
That first workout was groundbreaking in that Martin allowed it to be streamed live on UTsports.com, essentially welcoming a worldwide audience into the team’s practice.
Fans from coast to coast logged on to catch an inside glimpse of the action, and viewers from as far away as Europe joined as well, as several former Vols now playing professionally overseas voiced their appreciation for the opportunity to see their younger Vol brothers in action.
The multi-camera production featured several guests and special interviews, and Martin even wore a microphone so that fans could hear him as he put the Vols through their paces for two and a half hours.
Those who were unable to view the stream live can still access the archived video at their convenience at http://1tn.co/1stPrac
Sophomore guard Derek Reese no longer resembles the lanky freshman who arrived on Rocky Top more than a year ago. The Orlando, Fla., native weighed in at 208 pounds for his first collegiate campaign, which was abbreviated by multiple injuries.
He appeared in just 14 games last year. Preseason surgery on his right shoulder had him essentially playing catch-up all year long from a strength standpoint, and shortly after he was finally able to make his debut just before New Year’s, he was sidelined again with an ankle injury.
Now, however, Reese is weighing in at 221 pounds, and his upper body is noticeably more chiseled – a testament to Reese’s work ethic and ambition, as well as the influence of strength and conditioning guru Nicodemus Christopher.
“Derek knew that it would take a strong work ethic and much dedication to get caught up to speed and prepare for the upcoming season,” Christopher said. “We sat down and discussed his goals, and needless to say, because of his strong will and determination to succeed, Derek achieved above and beyond what we expected. His future is very bright.”
Vols assistant coach Jon Harris also has been impressed by what he’s seen out of Reese in recent months.
“Last year (Derek) kind of just got thrown into the fire,” Harris said. “He was out with injuries, banged up, his body probably wasn’t in great shape. But at this point, he’s had some success on the floor, he’s had an entire off-season where he got bigger and stronger and faster, and I think his confidence is high right now.”
Harris works closely every day with the Tennessee big men. And although Reese is officially listed as a guard, his reshaped frame and wide-ranging skill set has Harris optimistic about Reese’s capability to move inside and create advantages for the Vols with his versatility.
“He can stretch a defense,” Harris said. “He can make a three. He can handle the ball. He’ll be a mismatch for bigger guys, and also for smaller guys now with his added strength and weight. He should be a better rebounder than he was able to show last year. He’ll be a matchup problem.”
This past summer, Reese was a member of Puerto Rico's Men's National B Team at the 2013 FIBA Stanković Continental Champions Cup in China (his eligibility stems from his grandparents’ Puerto Rican birth). He played in all nine games at the tournament, starting two, while testing himself against much older and more developed Olympic-caliber players.
That experience should prove beneficial to Reese as he fights to earn a prominent spot in UT’s rotation this preseason.
A pair of East Tennesseans who once starred for the Vols were present at Tuesday’s afternoon practice, as Cleveland, Tenn., natives Vincent Yarbrough (1999-2002) and JaJuan Smith dropped by to observe the action at Pratt Pavilion.
Yarbrough and Smith both boast membership in Tennessee’s elite 1,000-Point Club, and both also helped lead the Volunteers to an SEC Championship. Yarbrough, who scored 1,737 career points, starred on Tennessee’s 2000 SEC Championship team. Smith, who poured in 1,384 points as a Vol – despite starting his career as a walk-on – was a key contributor on UT’s 2008 SEC Championship squad.
Yarbrough also was selected by the Denver Nuggets in the 2002 NBA Draft.
For the most up-to-date information about the Tennessee basketball program, visit UTsports.com/basketball and follow @Vol_Hoops on Twitter and Instagram.