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Post-Pearl Vols embracing Martin and myriad opportunities

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Jordan McRae knows exactly what they are saying. Not just those around the country, either.

"I hear all of it," Tennessee's sophomore guard said. "Even the fans around here think we're going to be sorry."

Jordan McRae raves about his new coach, Cuonzo Martin, though Bruce Pearl recruited him for the Vols. (Getty Images)  
Jordan McRae raves about his new coach, Cuonzo Martin, though Bruce Pearl recruited him for the Vols. (Getty Images)  
And, to think, it could have been worse. Much worse.

In the wake of the Bruce Pearl firing, the Volunteers actually were fortunate to keep McRae, Kenny Hall and Trae Golden -- three Top 100 players coming out of high school.

"I didn't even know who he was," McRae admitted after hearing the announcement that Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin would be replacing Pearl in Knoxville. "We didn't know what he was about or his system."

McRae fielded three or four calls from other schools in the weeks between Pearl's firing and Martin's hiring -- and he wasn't alone. It was the same for Hall and Golden.

They all could have left -- and Tennessee might have been left with a decimated situation that rivaled Indiana during Tom Crean's first season in Bloomington.

However, after a meeting with Martin -- a name that came virtually out of nowhere for the Vols' job -- shortly after the new coach took over, the players huddled up.

"I knew I wasn't going anywhere," McRae said. "And the other guys felt the same way."

McRae and his teammates had a rough season a year ago. There was the Pearl Saga, which stretched throughout the entire season. And despite most players claiming otherwise, there were significant chemistry issues.

"We tried to say it didn't affect us, but it did," said former Vol Tobias Harris, who left Knoxville after one season for the NBA. "We weren't clicking as a team. We had a lot of egos and we weren't a family. We were just out there playing; we weren't together as a unit and that was hard.

"Some of the guys got distracted because they were always talking about the investigation on TV instead of us. But I wouldn't say that's the whole reason why we didn't mesh together well."

Harris and McRae are in agreement that this year's team won't be nearly as talented as the one last season that featured Harris, enigmatic Scotty Hopson and departed fellow starters Brian Williams and Melvin Goins.

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However, the chemistry should be improved -- especially since playing time will be there for the taking now.

"They are hungry," said Harris, who spent last week down in Knoxville with his former teammates. "And they're going to prove people wrong."

McRae was considered a Top 50 coming out of high school, and Golden also was a highly regarded recruit coming out of Georgia. Hall has the potential to be one of the top big men in the SEC.

Then you have veteran Cam Tatum, the only player still around who averaged more than three points a year ago, as well as Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon, Skylar McBee and Renaldo Woolridge.

Martin also added a few new, fairly anonymous guys in guards Quinton Chievous and Josh Richardson, and former Pittsburgh forward Dwight Miller.

The Vols aren't ready to compete for an SEC title with Kentucky and/or Vanderbilt, but they won't be completely outmatched most nights.

"Most of us didn't get a chance to show what we could do," McRae said. "This just adds fuel to the fire -- and we're going to take that and run with it."

McRae has spoken with Pearl on a few occasions since he was jettisoned, and he's just hoping that the program doesn't get hit with a postseason ban when the NCAA announces its decision in the coming months.

"I haven't thought about it much," McRae said of the impending decision. "I don't think anyone on the team has, because we have no control over it.

"I don't think they should give us a postseason ban. That's really all that matters to us because that hurts the players, and we didn't do anything. Coach Pearl isn't even here anymore. He's gone."

McRae raves about his new coach despite the fact that Martin's personality and approach couldn't be more different than that of his predecessor, the guy who recruited McRae to Knoxville.

Harris spent a few weeks with Martin immediately following the change and echoes the vote of confidence.

"He works people to the limit," Harris said. "He's going to make people better. I would have loved to have played for him."

Harris won't get that chance, but Vols fans should be ecstatic that the other guys stuck around.

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