There are plenty of reasons why this year of Tennessee basketball has been the most talked about one in the Cuonzo Martin era — Jordan McRae, a deep rotation and another 5-star newcomer in Robert Hubbs III. But the Vols' two biggest strengths stick out like sore thumbs.
If thumbs were 6-8 and 260 pounds.
Senior leader Jeronne Maymon is making his return from a knee injury that forced him to redshirt last season after being the SEC's fourth-leading rebounder in 2011-12. He'll reunite with junior Jarnell Stokes, who in a year has gone from a raw talent to a dominating force who turned down the NBA for another season wearing orange.
In 2011-12, Stokes' only season thus far with Maymon, he came in midseason and played largely off the bench. Today, he's the SEC's top returning rebounder.
The highly-anticipated reunion of the two burly, physical post presences will have a new look this time around, according to McRae, a senior guard.
"When Jarnell came here, he just came straight out of high school," McRae said Friday before practice. "So with him having another year under his belt now, he'll be a way different player than he was the first time."
Neither player can go long without being asked about the big reunion.
"I love it," Stokes said. "I had a dose of him (Jeronne) this summer when we were playing pickup, and I just miss seeing him out there from freshman year. It means a lot for him to still be out there playing.
"Last year I was sort of mad that he redshirted, but now I guess I'm happy."
Stokes should be happy.
Not a game went by last season that he wasn't thrown double-teams — and sometimes triple-teams — by opposing frontcourts. It rattled him early in the season before he put together six straight double-double performances in the SEC slate.
Maymon forsees a much different beginning to his sidekick's season coming in 2013-14. The Vols start exhibition play by hosting Florida Southern on Nov. 2.
"I think Jarnell is being more comfortable this year," Maymon said. "Because he had struggled a little bit earlier last year with the double-teams and everything. But this year, he's going to be a little more one-on-one and now he's really finishing a higher percentage of his shots.
"You can definitely see the confidence steaming off of him. I think he's really going to be good for Vol nation this year."
Stokes isn't the only one who has impressed with his improved shooting. Maymon — a bruising post presence who hardly pulled up for jumpers — worked on his midrange shot over the offseason and it has showed in practice so far.
"He's definitely added to his outside game — he can shoot the ball a lot better than he could before," said McRae, who transformed from a bench contributor to an SEC Player of the Year runner-up in the year Maymon missed.
Maymon attributed his new talent on the outside to the work he put in with Tennessee's coaches over his absence.
"Me and a couple of coaches got together and worked on my shooting and my stroke, and being more consistent in my release," Maymon said.
How many looks Maymon gets on the outside is to be determined, with a star-studded shooting backcourt featuring McRae, Hubbs, junior swingman Josh Richardson and Memphis transfer Antonio Barton.
Along with being accurate shooters, the talented guards are pushing the ball down the court quicker than ever. Stokes sees it as the main difference between last year's and this year's squad.
"We'll run more, I think that's the biggest thing," Stokes said. "You have a lot of experienced guys, a lot of hungry guys, and when you put that together I think you'll have a much better product."
Much of that hunger comes from two near-misses in the NCAA tournament. Despite all of the preseason hype, the Vols are still motivated by an elusive bid to the Big Dance.
"No one wants to sit down at Selection Sunday and wonder if you'll be called or not," Stokes said. "This year, we want to be on the actual CBS show. We look forward to things like that. We realize that every game counts. We're a much older group, so I think only we can beat ourselves when it comes to that aspect."