"Toughness" has stood out as an unofficial motto of Tennessee basketball ever since Cuonzo Martin was hired as head coach in 2011. Now, it's official.
The 2013-14 season will run behind the "Tougher Breed" slogan — two words players utter in seemingly every press conference. Those words also encapsulate the blueprint for a team that is, according to Martin, the shining product of his three years of work at UT.
"You guys hear us talking about a tougher breed now," Martin said, "and that's something that has been a part of our program. But now is the first time that I've really revealed it as a coach because I feel like we're built for it.
"We have the personnel across the board to be that, to wear that badge of honor, so to speak. Because it's the way you play all the time, regardless of the outcome, and it's a brand that I feel good about."
The Vols' toughness comes from the inside out, with a pair of 6-foot-8, 260-pound big men reuniting. 2011-12 All-SEC power forward Jeronne Maymon returns as a fifth-year senior after redshirting last season, and he'll anchor the post along with junior Jarnell Stokes — a second-team All-SEC selection last season in his own right.
"It's very exciting being able to play alongside Jarnell," said Maymon, who hasn't played with Stokes in nearly two years. "With his stature and my stature, it's very hard for other teams to compare."
Tennessee's "big three" is rounded out by senior guard Jordan McRae, a first-team All-SEC preseason selection across the board. After a breakout junior campaign where he finished second in SEC Player of the Year voting, he's selected before this season to finish as the No. 2 player again in the conference.
Those three veterans, Martin said, will see the ball on every possession.
"Unless other guys prove otherwise," Martin said, "Jordan, Jeronne and Jarnell, those guys, the ball has to flow through those guys' hands in any way shape or form every time down."
Losing starting point guard Trae Golden, who transferred to Georgia Tech, left an undeniable hole in the Vols' lineup — one that Antonio Barton quickly filled.
The senior transferred from in-state rival Memphis after tussling for playing time, but missed the Vols' two exhibition games after tweaking his ankle in practice. Barton is set to make his debut when the Vols travel to Xavier tonight for the season opener.
Being the floor general on a team full of lofty expectations may bring pressure Barton hasn't experienced, having been a bench player in his first three collegiate seasons.
But he's not concerned one bit.
"I'm really not worried about what people are expecting me to do," Barton said. "I'm just going to do what I'm normally used to doing, play within this offense and be that missing piece that coach wanted me to fill."
Barton has shot over 40 percent from 3-point range in his career, which will help the Vols improve their deep shooting along with McRae, freshman Robert Hubbs III and more perimeter shooters.
Although Martin may have more guys capable of letting it fly from behind the arc, he wants to keep his team's offensive focus on the interior.
"We're a better 3-point shooting team than the previous two years," Martin said. "But we can't consume ourselves with just shooting 3-point shots all the time. If they present themselves then you have to take them, but we have to get the ball inside."
Outside of the starting five, the Vols boast new-found depth that wasn't featured in Martin's first two seasons. Instead of thrusting in youngsters who weren't ready, UT looks to have a two-deep rotation at each position.
Up next for Tennessee is finding roles for all of those pieces.
"When you have more than five or six guys, I think the biggest key is guys really embracing and accepting roles," Martin said. "That's why we talk a lot about family and togetherness.
"What happens is, when you get into this point of the season, someone has to accept a role in order for this team to be successful."
With the focus of Martin's first two teams sitting firmly on making the NCAA Tournament, a bigger goal is chased for this talent-laden squad.
While toughness is the signature characteristic of the program, on paper, the Vols return one of the most talented rosters in all of college basketball. That, according to Martin, could set this team apart.
"When you're trying to win championships and cut the nets down, you have to have the personnel to do that," the third-year coach said. "You have to be talented enough.
"You can work hard, you can compete, you can be in games, you can be tough, but you have to have the talent and personnel to try to win it in the end. I think we have the talent to do that."