Before the 2013-14 season could even begin, the Tennessee Volunteer men's basketball team knew what they had to do if they wanted to make the NCAA tournament after two years of missing out on the Big Dance.
Get off to a fast start.
One game in, the early-look Vols are more reminiscent of the orange and white-clad teams of the past that struggled out of the gates.
Following their 67-63 defeat to the Xavier Musketeers in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Tuesday, the Vols will look to get back on track as they face off against USC Upstate – a team who upset Virginia Tech on Nov. 9 – inside Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday.
"We have a good team," head coach Cuonzo Martin told reporters after the Xavier loss. "We will look at the film and make the adjustments."
If the Vols want to right the ship, avoiding foul trouble will have to be a priority.
Junior forward Jarnell Stokes had difficulties adjusting to the new offensive-friendly rule changes in the Vols' opener, as the preseason first-team All-SEC player played a total of five minutes in the first half due to foul trouble.
He proceeded to foul out with 2:40 remaining in the game.
"I mean, they're going to call the game how they're going to call the game, but, I mean, they can't blow the whistle all night," UT's Jordan McRae said after an exhibition win over Southern Indiana on Nov. 7. "So we're going to play how we're going to play. We're going to play how we're taught. I mean, we're not out there trying to foul guys, but we're still going to play like the physical team we are."
While USC Upstate may not appear to be the most daunting opponent on the Vols schedule this season on paper, UT needs to improve from the free throw line to avoid adding unneeded drama.
Through one game, the Vols rank 346th out of 348 Division 1 basketball programs with an abysmal 37 percent clip from the charity stripe after a 7-for-19 performance against the Musketeers.
"We need to think about making free throws. We have to spend more time shooting free throws," Martin said. "We shot almost 60 percent (from the floor) in the second half. We have to work on little things. I would rather play games, get it out of the system and complete."
The Vols will get the benefit of a few more days of rest for senior point guard Antonio Barton as he continues to recuperate from a left leg injury that limited him for the end of the preseason.
The former Memphis Tiger didn't get the start at Xavier but played 30 minutes and scored 10 points off the bench to go along with 4 assists, good for second on the team.
"Antonio does a great job of pushing the ball," McRae said. "He throws to the wings early to give us a chance to make moves and get to the basket. He is definitely going to help this team."
The last time Tennessee lost a home opener was on Nov. 25, 1991, when it fell to East Tennessee State, 87-70.
The Vols will look to build on that streak when they tip-off against the Spartans at 7 p.m Saturday night in Thompson-Boling Arena.