Vols, Gators think they have something for No. 1 Kentucky

jtipton@herald-leader.comOctober 17, 2013 

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — One team acknowledged more than one chip on its shoulder. The other lamented several chinks in its armor.

That's Florida and Tennessee, the teams perceived to be Kentucky's main threats in Southeastern Conference men's basketball this season.

Tennessee Coach Cuonzo Martin and star guard Jordan McRae took no comfort in being considered good, but less than the SEC's best this season. McRae, the league's second-leading returning scorer from last season (15.7 points per game), objected to the media voting Kentucky freshman Julius Randle its SEC pre-season Player of the Year.

"That's kind of a slap in the face for everybody in the league," he said while also allowing that Randle was "a great player."

Martin, whose persona suggests more grizzly bear than teddy bear, seemed unhappy with the media vote predicting a third-place finish for the Vols behind Kentucky and Florida. Nor did he enjoy forward Jarnell Stokes being named to the all-league second team.

When asked if the vote put a chip on Tennessee's shoulder, Martin said, "If you're a competitor, it should be. Certain things should be understood if you're a competitor."

A reporter suggested that Martin seemed to be a hard-edged, unforgiving competitor.

"I'm a nice guy, oh yeah," he said with a crocodile smile. "At least I like to think I am."

Tennessee, which might still be smarting from failing to get an NCAA Tournament bid last season despite an 11-7 league record, benefits from the return of forward Jeronne Maymon. He and Stokes give UT a bruising tandem near the basket, where Martin believes his team's fortunes rest.

"For us to be successful, the ball has to go around that rim in some shape or form," he said.

Maymon, who joined the Media Day via an iPad, pronounced himself "really close" to fully recovered from a knee surgery that sidelined him all of last season.

Each listed at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds, Maymon and Stokes give the Vols a pair of wide bodies.

"I don't know whose screen is worse," McRae said. "Either one, you try to avoid it."

Martin's preference for tough-minded, physical play extends to point guard. That's where Antonio Barton, a transfer from Memphis, replaces the departed Trae Golden in UT's version of Kentucky's switch of ultra-competitive Andrew Harrison for nice guy Ryan Harrow.

"He has a level of toughness," Martin said of Barton. "He wants to be a great player. In some ways, he has that chip on his shoulder to show what we can do."

Florida Coach Billy Donovan wondered aloud if his team will be able to show what it can do. Injuries, suspensions and star freshman Chris Walker's academic limbo have reduced practices to seven players.

"Can we get better in December and January when we haven't practiced together?" Donovan said. "That's the concern for me."

Florida's issues include point guard Scottie Wilbekin practicing while serving an indefinite suspension, Rutgers transfer Eli Carter still recovering from a broken leg, Will Yeguete sidelined because of surgery to his right knee and Michael Frazier suffering from a viral infection that Donovan fears could be diagnosed as mononucleosis.

Meanwhile, Donovan has not refuted a report that three other players — Damontre Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith and Casey Prather — could be suspended.

"If on Oct. 11 we had all those guys really healthy, then we have a chance to be really, really good," Donovan said. "But our team doesn't look like that anymore. I'm hoping as we move along, we get to that place."

Florida players have adopted the motto of SWAG (Strengthen When Adversity Grows). But Donovan dismissed the notion that by now the Gators should be flexing plenty of psychic muscle.

"I don't think we've faced any adversity at this point in time at all," he said. "Adversity comes when practices get really difficult and games get really difficult. When you have to handle winning and losing."

If that kind of adversity lies ahead, Florida and Tennessee seem oblivious.

Patric Young, who made the All-SEC second team, suggested that Kentucky's heralded freshmen are in for a rude awakening when "they see what a real defense looks like."

McRae voiced confidence that Tennessee is the equal of Kentucky and Florida.

"I feel we can go head up with those teams with no problem," he said.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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