'Twas a season of giving and receiving — no phrase could better encapsulate a Tennessee basketball team that has seen its fair share of highs and lows over the holiday break.
Hoping to distance themselves from a season-opening road loss at Xavier and a Bahamas slip-up to UTEP, the Vols immediately got big chances to make some noise during the break.
But they didn't deliver.
The break opened up with Tennessee heading to face then-No.12 Wichita State on Dec. 14 for the Vols' toughest road test of the non-conference season. A chance to notch the season's biggest win on national television motivated Cuonzo Martin's crew early on in the game as they took a one-point lead into the halftime break.
But Tennessee's defense fell apart in the final period, allowing 45 second-half points. The offense couldn't keep up, and Jordan McRae's 26 points weren't enough as the Vols dropped their third of the season in a 70-61 loss to the Shockers.
The signature win-thirsty Vols got a chance to right their wrongs four days later when the North Carolina State Wolfpack came to town. Instead of starting with promise, this one got ugly for Tennessee in a heartbeat.
The Vols were beaten silly early on, faced a 17-point halftime deficit, and simply spent all of their energy clawing back into the game. McRae had 21 and Maymon added 17 points and 16 rebounds, but they fell 65-58 for their second straight loss.
McRae shot just 6-for-22 in the loss — a staggering amount of attempts — and he was frustrated in his inability to trust teammates to score in key moments.
"I have to trust my teammates more," McRae said on Dec. 18. "I trust my teammates, but when we get down, I feel like it's on me to bring us back and I have to trust guys more."
Boos raining down from the Thompson-Boling Arena rafters were undeniably performance-related and not the typical referee complaining. It was Dec. 18, weeks before the SEC schedule, and the Vols already had four losses.
The Vols were in trouble, yet again stuck in another early-season rut. The ever-annoying Bruce Pearl songbirds had never been louder. Just as well, the preseason hype never seemed so far away.
Of course, it was then that Martin's squad got things together and in a big way.
The Tennessee offense began to get its feet under them with a morale-boosting, 82-67 win over Morehead State on Dec. 23. Josh Richardson had his best game of the season with 19 points and eight rebounds.
Finally, Martin said after the win, Richardson listened to his coach's request to attack more on offense.
"I don't know how many times I have to tell a guy to be aggressive," Martin said on Dec. 23. "When you're playing 30 minutes a night, I just don't know what to tell you."
At least the Vols could go home for Christmas with some sort of momentum.
That momentum didn't waver amid holiday presents and Christmas carols. The Vols returned back to Knoxville on a mission to turn their season around.
The once-ranked Virginia Cavaliers visited Tennessee on Dec. 30, and Martin was facing the music. Another loss could spell doom for the Vols' NCAA Tournament chances, even though it wasn't even January yet.
The Vols couldn't miss against the Cavs. Whether it was shooting 11-for-17 from deep as a team—including an ESPN SportsCenter Top 10 Antonio Barton half-court shot at the halftime buzzer — Tennessee's offensive issues quickly became an afterthought.
In the end, Tennessee pulled out a 87-52 win that seemed to be wrapped up before halftime. The 35-point victory was the biggest of Cuonzo Martin's tenure in Knoxville and simply just the type of game he expected from his team all along.
"Much needed win against a talented, physical opponent," Martin said on Dec. 30. "But I think more than anything, it shows our guys the level we're capable of playing at when we play together and when we play hard."
Three scorers — McRae (21), Jarnell Stokes (20) and Richardson (20) — finished with at least 20 points. Richardson notched another season high in points.
"It got to a point where when I shot a three, I was just running back on defense," Richardson said on Dec. 30. "I felt like if I threw it up there, it was going to go in."
One more speed bump remained for the Vols to finish out the non-conference slate, and it was a 98-51 win over Tusculum College in which Tennessee continued its recent shooting form. The Vols shot 35-for-61 (57.4 percent) from the field.
Many UT diehards expected the 2013-14 season to go a bit more smoothly in the early stretches, but there's no doubt the Vols are peaking as they head into conference play.