The Daily Beacon's Steven Cook spoke with Tennessee men's basketball head coach Cuonzo Martin about the upcoming season on July 30.
Steven Cook: To start off, there were a lot of positives to take from last season but some areas to improve as well. What are the biggest areas that you've been telling your team to work on from a skill standpoint this offseason?
Cuonzo Martin: Like you said, there's always improvements still on both ends of the floor. We talk a lot about just improving skill offensively, but I think there's just as much an individual can take from improving his defensive skill as well. It's foot speed, it's foot movement, it's boxing out and technique in certain areas, but also improving some of (their) toughness to be aggressive defensively. So you can always improve on that end as well.
As a team, we're working on improving our free throw percentage across the board as a team. Not just one or two guys, but team free throw shooting and minimizing the turnovers. Try to keep the turnovers under 10, and try to get the free throw shooting above 75 percent as a team.
SC: One talked about player is Robert Hubbs, the incoming freshman; a lot of Vol fans think he's going to be an immediate impact player. What do you envision his role being next year? Do you think Vol fans should expect him to break out with a huge freshman year or ease into the program?
CM: I expect him to be a very talented guy and a major piece to what we do as a team, but as far as how much he scores or how many shots he takes a game, that has everything to do with Robert and the system, so to speak. It's not necessarily 'okay, I need you to take this many shots in the game.' In a game, you take what the defense gives you. Staying in attack mode, being aggressive in game situations, being assertive, those are things, rebounding the basketball, maybe he can make three-point shots, so all those areas just being aggressive. But it's hard to put a number on a guy because you don't know the situation, you don't know how teams will defend you, but I think he'll be ready and excited to go.
SC: A big factor in his development will be Jordan (McRae), a player who many people believed to be the SEC Player of the Year last year. What do you think his ceiling is this year and what should Vol fans expect from him?
CM: Just improving upon what he finished last season. The biggest thing he can be doing is minimizing turnovers, not necessarily getting assists up because he does pass the ball and make good decisions. Minimizing turnovers is the biggest key to his game offensively. Getting to the free throw line, getting his percentage up to 85-90 percent because he has the abilities to do that. On the defensive side of the ball, get out on the passing lines and get more steals because he has the length and athleticism to do that. That's another way for him to create opportunities for him to score.
SC: Vol fans have to go way back to remember Jeronne Maymon. Last year, you played it safe by keeping him out with his bad knee. Should he be 100 percent from day one or is this (injury) just something that he'll be dealing with early on in the season?
CM: It looks like he'll be 100 percent from day one. He's looking good, he's in every workout and is a part of every practice. He looks normal to me. But with any injury, I know for myself in college, I thought I played 100 percent, I thought I looked like it, but it's always rehab, it's always rehab, ice, that's just a way of life. As long as he plays the game it'll be a way of life for him, just like when I played in college. It was a part of my lifestyle, there's nothing wrong with that. So that will be a part of who he is as a basketball player to be at the level he needs to be at.
SC: Will Jarnell (Stokes) being down there (with Maymon) – being a lot older than he was when they first played together help him in that regard and complement him in the post as far as what we saw when Jarnell was just a freshman and a newcomer?
CM: I think it'll help both of them a great deal. This will probably be the first time that they've had a summer time together into the fall, because when Jarnell came in as a freshman, he came in right in December so they had to learn on the fly in game situations. Then you go on to this past summer, when Jeronne had the injury, they didn't get a lot of reps together. This has been the first time going into the fall that they've been able to play on the floor together and it's been fun.
SC: As is the standard here at Tennessee, I've got to throw in a question about football. Surely you've been no stranger to Butch Jones and the fever he's taken up Knoxville with. I'm sure you've gotten to know him a little bit, too. What are some parallels you draw from him in coaching? Do you have similar styles in any way?
CM: I've seen him from afar. I've been around Butch, we've been out to eat, I've gone over to his office and talked to him a bit. He has tremendous passion. He's a guy that obviously loves what he does, loves being around his players and wants to be the best. He enjoys representing the University of Tennessee. I'm excited to see these guys go. He puts the time into it and is committed to being successful. It's fun being around him.
SC: Now in your third year, you've come so close to the Big Dance both years, but this year just seems like the year with your talent. What trends must your team get into this year if you want to have real championship aspirations?
CM: Just getting off to a good start mainly in the preseason. That's probably been a thing that has slowed us up for the NCAA Tournament in the last two years so you want to get off to a good start in preseason games and we're going to get off to a good start in preseason and go from there.