Thursday, April 24, 2014 · 1:08 p.m.

Vols a popular pick in early Top 25 polls for 2013-14

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Tennessee senior forward Jeronne Maymon. (Photo: Billy Weeks)

KNOXVILLE – College basketball is still seven months away from restarting, but that hasn’t stopped many national publications from making early predictions for 2013-14.

Tennessee fans should like what they see.

The Vols are almost unanimously in the Top 25 in the early polls – topping out as high as No. 18 in CBSSports.com’s rankings. CBS, ESPN and Sports Illustrated all have the Vols making the early Top-25 cut. USA Today has the Vols listed as the second team outside the Top 25 to keep an eye on.

It’s a big projected jump for a team that hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since Cuonzo Martin took over in 2011. Only four teams – UT, Virginia, Kentucky and Florida State – made CBS’s poll without participating in the NCAA tournament last season.

“The Vols lost five of their first six SEC games last season, but were one of the league's most-improved teams by March,” ESPN.com’s Jason King wrote. “Cuonzo Martin's squad barely missed out on an NCAA tournament bid, but that won't happen in 2013-14.”

That’s a prediction based on UT’s mix of returning talent and some new faces coming to the lineup. Gone are role players Skylar McBee, Yemi Makanjuola and Kenny Hall, but starters Jordan McRae, Trae Golden, Josh Richardson, Armani Moore and Jarnell Stokes are all expected to be back.

Where UT is ranked for 2013-14

ESPN.com: 19

CBSSports.com: 18

Sports Illustrated: 19

McRae and Stokes both evaluated their professional options before announcing their return to Knoxville.

The Vols currently have five signees, including five-star guard Robert Hubbs, expected to report this summer. And perhaps most important is the return of former All-SEC selection Jeronne Maymon, who, paired with Stokes, could form one of top big-man duos in the SEC. Maymon missed 2012-13 with a knee injury.

"No one wants to end in the NIT after two straight years,” Stokes said after making his decision to return to UT. “We were so close [last year]. I feel like this coming year there shouldn't be a question whether or not we get in the tournament. Me and Jeronne should be one of the best frontcourts in the nation. We have to go out there and prove that.”

The early rankings bode well for Martin, who is entering the critical third year of his tenure at Tennessee. He took over a somewhat depleted roster after former coach Bruce Pearl left amidst an NCAA investigation. Coaching a mix of players recruited by himself and Pearl, Martin’s teams have made strong late runs in SEC play the last two seasons, but have been among the last teams left out of the NCAA tournament in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Martin’s job doesn’t appear to be in serious jeopardy at this point, but a third straight season without guiding the Vols to the Big Dance would fall short of the expectation level set by Pearl – who guided the Vols to the NCAA tournament six straight years and led them to the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight once.

“We have to take better pride in defending individually one-on-one guys and shutting guys down – that has to be a passion not just something we do as a team,” Martin said at the end 2012-13 when asked what the Vols need to do to make it to the NCAA tournament next season. “It is a passion to defend one-on-one. I think that is the next step."

Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga

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